SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, Charlie Kaufman, 2008

In Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, we follow theatre director Caden Cotard as he struggles his way through an existential crisis. As his relationships fail and his health begins to deteriorate, Caden becomes increasingly anxious about capturing the “brutal truth” of existence before his time is up. Death – or rather, the way the personal significance we attach to our own deaths, affects how we experience life – is therefore a central theme of the film, and it is this I want to explore. I want to consider two questions: Can philosophical analysis provide us with a meaningful interpretation of death? And is there, perhaps, a way of understanding death which can help us better relate to the basic nature of our mortality – to accept that to be is ultimately to die?

Such questions are prevalent throughout the whole of Western philosophy. Epicurus, for example, argued that to fear death is ultimately irrational, because whilst we are alive we cannot be dead, and then when we do die, we won’t exist to be bothered about it (1). After all, we are not bothered about the fact that we did not exist prior to our conception. Yet although this argument is undeniably persuasive in its logic, I think that Epicurus’s conclusion that death “is nothing to us” is somewhat hasty. His position is important in emphasising that for us to experience and understand our own deaths in the same way that we experience and understand any other sort of event is impossible. But even if we do not experience death as such, it is a fundamental and unavoidable fact of our mortal existence. It is hard to imagine Caden Cotard, for instance, finding consolation or satisfaction in these Epicurean insights. Perhaps it is the case that the significance of death can only be interpreted if subjected to a different form of analysis.

Unlike Epicurus, Martin Heidegger argues that an appropriate understanding and attitude towards death is fundamental to our own self-understanding, and essential if we are to work out the meaning of Being itself.  Heidegger’s project in Being and Time is to work out the meaning of Being through a study of that sort of being for whom Being is an issue for it; in other words, he presents us with a concrete phenomenological analysis of our form of existence, which Heidegger terms Dasein (literally meaning ‘being-there’). To sum this up somewhat crudely, we could call this an attempt to analyse what the ‘being’ in being human consists of.  Essential to this analysis is the awareness that the possibilities of existence for Dasein are delineated by temporal boundaries: our Being begins in a state of “thrown-ness” at birth, and from then on we exist not only as a (thrown) Being-in-the-world, but also as a Being-towards-the-end. Crucially for Heidegger, death is constantly constitutive of our Being – it permeates our everyday existence as the possibility – the “not-yet” – which any Dasein will one day have to be, whether we acknowledge it or not.

If we are to live “authentically”, according to Heidegger, we must continually project our existence towards the horizon of our death. We need to acknowledge that we are essentially finite; that our death, as the complete loss of Being-in-the-world, is something we must face totally alone because it can never grasped by a Being-still-there. Even when we experience the deaths of others, we are brought no closer to an understanding of what death means for us. To be authentically we must recognise that death is our own unavoidable potentiality (2). We must confront the fact that we are always thrown towards possibilities which are ultimately our own because only we can be responsible for facing up to death and making sense of our existence as a Being-towards-death.  Heidegger argues that this entails cultivating a mood of “anxiety” – a mode of living founded upon an anticipation of death which fully recognises one’s finitude and individuality, and refuses to conform to the common attitudes – the idle talk of “the they” or the consolations of religion – which tranquilize us about these facts.

Whilst some aspects of Heidegger’s position may not be entirely convincing – his rejection of the significance the death of others may have for our own self-understanding, for example – the idea that an acknowledgement of our finitude can profoundly affect our self-interpretation strongly resonates. In Synecdoche, New York, the character of Caden is painfully aware of his own mortality. His body seems to be turning against him and talk of or references to death abound in his world. This raises an important point – although the Epicurean imploration not to fear death is most probably sound advice, to cast death from our minds as “nothing to us” seems an even more difficult feat for the ill person who is acutely aware that the end may come sooner than hoped. Caden quite readily acknowledges that he is a Being-towards-death. However, this does not mean that he is leading what Heidegger would call an authentic existence. It seems that rather than cultivating a mood of “anxiety” and anticipating death in a way that leads him to an appreciation of life as transient, towards recognition of the temporality of Being, he desperately clings to the ‘reality’ of the everyday by representing and recreating it again and again as a piece of theatre. Caden even hires an actor, Sammy, to play himself in his life-drama, deferring the responsibility of honestly confronting death onto another person.

“We’re all hurtling towards death,” Caden says, “yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.” It seems that although Caden is able to accept that death is the horizon towards which we all are thrown, he fails to appreciate that all our living moments are unique, irreversible and leading us closer to the end. In the film, months and years seem to pass Caden by without him noticing that life has moved on. In his attempt to capture a moment of absolute truth in art before it is too late, he neglects to project himself into a future which cannot be held back. The result is that as he nears his death, he is radically alienated from his mode of existence. He realises that in life, unlike in theatre, there are no rehearsals, there are no second chances, and there is no director or audience there to validate your performance.

Synecdoche, New Yorkhas quite a reputation for being divisive in the responses it provokes. Some find it depressingly bleak.  One film professor, Daniel Shaw (3) argues that as a film it is ‘profoundly deadening’. For Shaw, the character of Caden – desperate for meaning yet embittered by the world – represents the passive nihilism which Nietzsche so derided. Professor of philosophy and religion David Smith disagrees (4). He sees Kaufman’s mix of tragic insight and comic farce as a platform to inspire reflection upon strategies for a sort of ‘naturalistic transcendence’ in our ways of relating to the basic limits of human existence; namely, death and the impossibility of adequately representing our world linguistically. Personally, I would say that to experience the film as ‘profoundly deadening’ suggests that one has missed out on its invitation for us to think about our lives differently. Although Caden may fail to form what Heidegger would term an authentic existence, this need not be the fate of everyone. If we follow Heidegger on this point, death is something we must confront. But the way we interpret our existence as Being-towards-death is ultimately down to us.

Natasha Wynne

(1). Epicurus: ‘Death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist. Therefore, it is relevant neither to the living nor the dead, since it does not affect the former, and the latter do not exist.’ (Quoted in Havi Carel, Illness, p.90)

(2). Heidegger: ‘Death is a possibility-of-Being which Dasein itself has to take over in every case. With death, Dasein stands before itself in its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. This is a possibility in which the issue is nothing less than Dasein’s Being-in-the-world. Its death is the possibility of no-longer-being-able-to-be-there. If Dasein stands before itself as this possibility, it has been fully assigned to its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. When it stands before itself in this way, all its relations to any other Dasein have been undone. This ownmost non-relational possibility is at the same time the uttermost one.’ (Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, p. 294)

(3). Daniel Shaw: ‘The impact of this film is like what Nietzsche condemns in artistic expressions of romantic pessimism: rather than invigorating us to act in the face of the deplorable superficiality of the world, Synecdoche, New York is profoundly deadening. Characters such as Cotard embody the deer-caught-in-headlights powerlessness that is symptomatic of what Nietzsche calls passive nihilism […].’ (‘Nietzschean Themes in the Films of Charlie Kaufman’ in The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman, ed. Mark Conrad, p. 265)

(4). David L. Smith: ‘The film is a study in self-defeat; it envisions no way out of this bind [i.e. the sense of falling short created by our reliance on language as expression] short of death, and death is hardly a solution […] There is no other world from which help can be expected, and ever “elsewhere” we build for ourselves out of words turns out to be fatally flawed – a fool’s paradise. Nevertheless, there is a way of seeing our current circumstances that may deserve the name transcendence, if only because this view allows us to live on terms surprisingly adequate to our desire […] Synecdoche, New York evokes transcendence by oblique means and inspires reflection on strategies by which transcendence is pursued.’ (‘Synecdoche, in Part’ in The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman, ed. Mark Conrad, p. 244-245)

‘The ordinary confusion of life itself becomes a scene of transcendence, as when fate is transformed through amor fati. Nothing changes, and yet everything changes its aspect, as when tragedy modulates into farce. Some significant mystery is revealed, and one is left with the sense, if not that all manner of things shall be well, then at least that life deserves our grudging but genuine fondness.’ (Ibid., p. 249)

And some quotes from the film…

‘Try to keep in mind that a young person playing Willie Loman thinks he’s only pretending to be at the end of a life full of despair. But the tragedy is that we know that you, the young actor will end up in this very place of desolation.’

‘I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That’s what I want to explore. We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.’

‘I won’t settle for anything less than the brutal truth. Brutal. Brutal. Each day I’ll hand you a paper, it’ll tell you what happened to you that day. You felt a lump in your breast. You looked at your wife and saw a stranger, et cetera. […] I’m not excusing myself from this either. I will have someone play me, to delve into the murky, cowardly depths of my lonely, fucked-up being. And he’ll get notes too, and those notes will correspond to the notes I truly receive every day from my god!

‘I’ve watched you forever, Caden, but you’ve never really looked at anyone other than yourself. So watch me. Watch my heart break. Watch me jump. Watch me learn that after death there’s nothing. There’s no more watching. There’s no more following. No love. Say goodbye to Hazel for me. And say it to yourself, too. None of us has much time.’

‘Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you may never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but it doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along. Something to make you feel connected, something to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved. And the truth is I feel so angry, and the truth is I feel so fucking sad, and the truth is I’ve felt so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long I’ve been pretending I’m OK, just to get along, just for, I don’t know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own. Well, fuck everybody. Amen.’

‘What was once before you – an exciting, mysterious future – is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone’s everyone. So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen. All her meager sadnesses are yours; all her loneliness; the gray, straw-like hair; her red raw hands. It’s yours. It is time for you to understand this. As the people who adore you stop adoring you; as they die; as they move on; as you shed them; as you shed your beauty; your youth; as the world forgets you; as you recognize your transience; as you begin to lose your characteristics one by one; as you learn there is no-one watching you, and there never was, you think only about driving – not coming from any place; not arriving any place. Just driving, counting off time. Now you are here, at 7:43. Now you are here, at 7:44. Now you are…Gone.’


INLAND EMPIRE, David Lynch, 2006

Some thoughts on Inland Empire and Time

Time, specifically chronological time, is a deeply convoluted network in David Lynch’s work. Indeed, the notion of chronology (and its rupture) is such a key theme in Inland Empire that his characters are often seen questioning the order of events. For example, when Nikki is visited by her Polish neighbour the latter talks about the mixing up of time – yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows:

“Me, I… I can’t seem to remember if it’s today, two days from now, or yesterday. I suppose if it was 9:45, I’d think it was after midnight! For instance, if today was tomorrow, you wouldn’t even remember that you owed on an unpaid bill…If it was tomorrow, you would be sitting over there.”

In another scene, Nikki asks the question,

“Hey! Look at me. And tell me if you’ve known me before.”

And later, even more tellingly, we see her state:

“This is a story that happened yesterday. But I know it’s tomorrow.”

Even the film in which Nikki gets a role is entitled “On High in Blue Tomorrows.”

The important point here, I would suggest, is that we are not left with some nihilistic flight from time in which chronology is subjugated to some kind of higher (yet still not definitive) dream-time. The rather lazily drawn out claim, made all too often by both Lynch admirers and detractors alike, that his essential modus operandi is one in which dream-time and its layering of unconscious desires is the only (non-)structure of order, does not do Lynch justice.

Rather, I would argue that his treatment of time is far more subtle. What might at first glance appear as merely jumbled-up, disarranged, fractured, and fragmented words, images, scenes, or characters have at their core the threat of something more axiomatic, something where order is always a tangible possibility. In place of (or perhaps in spite of) untamed, limitless abstraction, Lynch always offers the opposite – clarity and the threat of order breaking out at any moment.

And this, I claim, is revealed in the Rabbit sitcom scene. Here, the Rabbits speak in terse, seemingly perfunctory sentences that appear disconnected from each other because they do not follow a conventional, chronological conversational basis. This is heightened by the fact that they are occasionally followed by a non-sequitur laugh-track. The ‘conversation’ goes as follows (the insertion of numbers is mine):

1) Female Rabbit: “I’m going to find out one day.” Pause. “When will you tell it?”
2) Male Rabbit: “Were there any calls.”
3) Female Rabbit: “What time is it?”
4) Male Rabbit: “I have a secret.”
5) Female Rabbit: “There have been no calls today.”
6) Male Rabbit: “I am not sure.”

But the fact is that one could so easily re-order the chronology of the statements as follows:

3) Female Rabbit: “What time is it?”
6) Male Rabbit: “I am not sure.”
2) Male Rabbit: “Were there any calls.”
5) Female Rabbit: “There have been no calls today.”
4) Male Rabbit: “I have a secret.”
1) Female Rabbit: “I’m going to find out one day.” Pause. “When will you tell it?”

This simple rearrangement would offer cohesion in place of the randomness of the unqualified chatter of this scene in its former shape.

The fact that there is this more axiomatic, analytical aspect to Lynch’s work is perhaps one reason why all of his films, including Inland Empire, can be read as having ‘happy endings,’ or at least having endings which include the redress of the major difficulties which his protagonists and their situations face. Abstraction, then, is always mirrored by its other – a concrete order.

And this is precisely why, as I have already mentioned, Lynch’s characters make constant references to their experience of time. It is not a case of ‘anything goes,’ rather, there is always a short step from confusion to resolution.

In place of a hierarchy either way, Lynch’s work is a constant straddling of the tension line between the two.

Bash Khan

THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972

Time is a healer. Age and experience help one to become wiser and more mature. So the cliché’s go. Are these notions not the flagship for the hope of Reason itself? That is to say, do not the lessons learnt through trial and error heuristically enable one to reach greater heights of understanding?

The Apollonian notion of order dictates that one comes to judge soberly the relationships in one’s life. Or as Habermas might say, the “unforced force of the better argument” is impelled to hold sway, and that it is this communicative rationality which once again reinforces the foundations of Reason and raises it to a linear, progressive, normative standard.

But what happens when communication serves no progressive rationality? When supposed linearity dissolves into fragments? When customs and norms are transvaluated? When Dionysus kicks out at Apollo?

Possible answers to these questions lie within The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant.

The film dissects the various relationships of a successful clothes designer, Petra Von Kant – with her former husbands, her ‘friend’ Sidonie, her daughter, and her mother – but with particularly chilling emphasis on her involvement with her live-in secretary/maid/slave Marlene, and a young girl named Karin with whom Petra falls in love.

In a Foucaldian sense, Fassbinder weaves these relationships into an exploration of how power is manipulated through a series of discursive filters: history, class, art, age, psychosis, and gender.

Just as potently, the film is also a vivid rumination on the nature of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic, and Nietzschean master-slave morality. This is brought to bear in the tension within the film between art and love on the one hand and servitude and labour on the other, and the paradoxes contained within each. The freedom of expression within the former is offset immanently by the amour fou which paralyses Petra and makes her a prisoner to her love. At the same time, the alienation and submission of the latter in the form of Marlene’s slavery to Petra is offset by the inherent freedom which marks out Marlene’s choice to leave Petra at the end of the film.

Time does not always heal like the cliché would have us believe. It sometimes pushes us further into desperation or moral degradation. The interdependence of Petra and Karin, and Petra and Marlene is the ostensible interdependence of the master and the slave. On the surface it may appear at the end of the film that Marlene finds a way out of her alienation; that she acts freely and recognizes that she has more authority than she may have dreamed. Similarly, it may appear at first glance that Petra also realizes that her success is built on the foundations of Marlene’s labour, and together this allows for a certain dialectical uplift in consciousness on the parts of both women, helping to outline the epiphanal aspects of the Absolute in Hegel’s thought. However, Marlene leaves with a gun in her suitcase, suggesting all the while that there may be trouble ahead, and once again undercutting the notion of any linear resolution of all present difficulties. Furthermore, this highlights that despite the fact that Petra makes peace with her master Karin, and with her slave Marlene, amour fou is always only just around the corner.

The paradox in Petra’s treatment of Karin and Marlene is the tension between Reason and its limits. Petra rails about how much Karin is hurting her, how she doesn’t understand why someone she loves so much would hurt her in such a fashion. Yet she does the same thing to Marlene on a regular basis, hurting someone who loves her, and doing so unapologetically. She misses the truth that is right in front of her.

Bash Khan

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, David Cronenberg, 2005

A History of Violence has as one of its main concerns the manner in which Selfhood is constituted and the various rival claims that impinge on constructing that identity. The work of Galen Strawson analyses the strategies and the ways in which human beings attempt to build those constructions. For Strawson, those strategies fall into two distinct categories: Narrativity and Episodicity.

Narrativity, according to Strawson, has two elements:

  • 1)     Psychological Narrativity: This is a straightforwardly empirical, descriptive thesis about the way ordinary human beings actually experience their lives. This is how we are, it says; this is our nature. It is informed by the narratives that we create for ourselves; the identities under which we construct a sense of Self. This Self is, in the words of Jerry Bruner, “…a perpetually rewritten story…in the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we ‘tell about’ our lives.”
  • 2)     Ethical Narrativity: This states that it does not matter whether we are storytellers by nature, but rather that we ought to live our lives narratively because a richly narrative outlook is essential to true or full personhood. As Charles Taylor argues, a “…basic condition of making sense of ourselves (and of each other – my parenthesis) is that we grasp our lives in a narrative and have an understanding of our lives ‘as an unfolding story’.” This ‘understanding is vital because it allows one to fully develop as a person and in turn allows others to understand “who we are.” (1)

Both these narrative views of the Self broadly align themselves to what Strawson calls “Diachronic Self-Experience.” (2) This is a Self whose past, present, and future has indelible continuity, stretched out across time, and is prone to think of itself in narrative terms.

This thesis, however, is challenged by what Strawson calls “Episodic Self-Experience.” (3) Here, although the Self is perfectly aware of its continuity aspect, the narrative drive is dispensed with. One’s decisions are informed by the particular demands of a situation as it presents itself and cannot be processed into an objective filter determined by a narrative of ‘how one has always gone about these things.’ This does not mean that Episodics obliterate their connection to their past, on the contrary, as Strawson makes clear,

Faced with sceptical Diachronics, who insist that Episodics are (essentially) dysfunctional in the way they relate to their own past, Episodics will reply that the past can be present or alive in the present without being present or alive as the past. The past can be alive – arguably more genuinely alive – in the present simply in so far as it has helped to shape the way one is in the present, just as musicians’ playing can incorporate and body forth their past practice without being mediated by any explicit memory of it. (4)

Thus, the memories themselves are not the most important thing, but rather the fact that we are creatures who are able to remember.

Strawson, himself a committed Episodic, argues that Narrative structures limit the ethical possibilities available to human beings,

…Many are likely to be thrown right off their own truth by being led to believe that Narrativity is necessary for a good life. My own conviction is that the best lives almost never involve this kind of self-telling. (5)

In A History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen plays one man, but two characters. When we first meet him, he is Tom Stall, he runs a diner, lives with his nuclear family on a small ranch in a small town in a sleepy part of Indiana where even the police know each one of its citizens by first name. We are soon made aware though that Tom Stall was once someone else: Joey Cusack. Joey was wild, ran with mobsters, and once tried to take a rival gang leader’s eye out with barbed wire. Once this past, which was kept hidden from his family, is revealed to them, the lines of tension between Tom and Joey come to the fore, both in his dealings with his family and with the people from his criminal past.

Which one, then, is the real man?

For Strawson, one would not need a narrative history to answer this question or to explain Tom/Joey’s violence. The recourse to some sort of over-arching ‘examined life ‘ or some systematic quest to define the personality and definitively trace the curve of its development in Tom/Joey is essentially a dogmatic one. It does not allow for the full flourishing for living in the present in which one is not fettered by the history narrated for it. Indeed, Strawson could be talking directly about Tom/Joey when he says:

I’m a product of my past, including my very early past, in many profoundly important respects. But it simply does not follow that self-understanding, or the best kind of self- understanding, must take a narrative form, or indeed a historical form. If I were charged to make my self-understanding explicit, I might well illustrate my view of myself by reference to things I (GS) have done, but it certainly would not follow that I had a Diachronic outlook, still less a Narrative one. (6)

On this account, the history of violence depicted in the film does not mean that Tom has to define himself as any particular ‘type’ of person at all, still less as Joey.

However, this thesis is disrupted somewhat by other strands in the film which pose problems for Strawson’s theory. Firstly, however much the Self may be able to resist the false consciousness of a psychological narrative for itself or the construction of an ethical autobiography built to make sense of its ‘personality,’ the Self is still at some level in thrall to wider societal objectification. Self-telling here is indelibly linked with Other-telling. In as much as all human beings are seen by others through whichever filter of assessment they may choose to use (including diachronic analysis, as well as psychological or ethical Narrativity), Narrativity appears to be a tool far more compelling in the way that we make sense of the world than an Episodic injunction to withhold from this kind of Self/Other-telling or Self/Other-assessing.

Of course, this does not wholly invalidate Strawson’s argument, it just makes his task of living in the moment so rigorous that it would seem difficult to say for certain that one could wholly delimit or resist some kind of Narrative grasp of who a person is.

With this in mind, it is clear in A History of Violence that not only do Tom/Joey’s family react to him differently when the truth about his past as Joey emerges, but also the citizens of his sleepy little town, including the patrons at the diner he runs, would feel differently (in a pejorative sense) should they too become aware of the diachronic facts about him.

The other important strand in the film which raises tensions about Strawson’s argument is the reaction of Tom/Joey’s son Jack. Before he learns of Tom’s history as Joey we see Jack struggling to come to terms with being bullied in High School and the way that he should react to it. Initially, he uses humour to save himself from taking a beating. However, after he learns of his father’s past, a violent side to Jack’s own personality is unleashed and we see him viciously attack his bullies when confronted by them.

The history of violence then is not just a strong Narrative that comes out internally within the relationship between Tom/Joey, but also internally within Jack, as well as externally between father and son. Indeed, this genetic aspect would seem to override Strawson’s construction of Episodics. In light of the linkages (the history of violence) between Jack and Tom/Joey, not only is there the possibility of genetic pre-disposition to being a certain kind of Self, but there is also a clear Narrative strand which cannot be so easily dismissed by a call to Episodic priority.

Again, this does not invalidate Strawson’s thesis. He accepts these linkages, but describes them as “piecemeal,” (7) which is to say that they do not represent some definitive, objective writing on the wall about who one is. In this light, Jack could (and according to Strawson should) still mark out his own path without the relapse into identity-thinking which would mark out his behaviour for this or that particular type.

Perhaps our definitions of ourselves (and each other) lie somewhere between Narrativity and Episodicity. The visceral sense of belonging which one associates emphatically with one’s own history cannot just be explained away as “piecemeal,” or as something which should be so easily discarded. Nor should we fall lazily into the bad habits of continually constructing pulp fictions about ourselves. The attempt should be instead, as Strawson quotes from V.S. Pritchett, to “live beyond any tale that we happen to enact.” (8)

Bash Khan

[1] Against Narrativity, Galen Strawson. Ratio (new series) XVII 4 December 2004 0034–0006. p. 428-432. Also available on:
(2) Strawson, p.430.
(3) Strawson, p.430.
(4) Strawson, p.432.
(5) Strawson, p.437.
(6) Strawson, p.449.
(7) Strawson, p.448.
(8) Strawson, p.450.


Robert is married to Christine but is having an affair with Genevieve. Christine succumbs firstly to the fervent attentions of Andre, before professing her love for Octave. Octave, despite carrying a torch for Christine, is courting her maid Lisette. Lisette is married to Schumacher, and as well as her liaisons with Octave, has extra-curricular trysts with Marceau.

In explaining the intricate love-lives of the people in his milieu, Octave (played by Renoir himself) utters the famous line that, “The truly terrible thing is that everybody has their reasons.

If everyone has their reasons, what happens to morality? Not to mention free will? That is to say that if everyone has their reasons, the particular set of circumstances which bring an agent to undertake any action must in one sense mean that it is entirely reasonable to assume that they could not have acted in any other way than they did. Therein, one is merely conditioned by the particular ‘rules of the game’ in any given social framework. This appears to bear out the illusion of free will. And indeed, Renoir’s characters, rather than being living embodiments of free will liberated by their choices, seem the polar opposite – trapped by inevitability.

Renoir himself indicates an anguished awareness that we can never wholly fathom the quality of our own intentions or judge the extent to which they illuminate or darken our reasoning. We may imagine ourselves to be lucid and free on the one hand whilst plunging ever deeper into personal or collective self-deception on the other. In a 1966 interview, he explicitly affirmed his own understanding of these principles:

Renoir: People are not convinced by arguments. They are convinced by the sound of a voice. For example, I’m sure the people who followed Hitler weren’t convinced by what he told them. I’m sure it was the little man’s strange personality.

Cahiers: The magical side?

Renoir: The magical side! I think that convincing people is magic. People think that one convinces with arguments, with logical reasons. It’s not true. Logic never convinced anyone. Absolute truth is absolutely invisible.

Cahiers: And Socrates’ dialogues?

Renoir: Ah! I’m sure it’s the same thing. There was a magical side. Because Socrates’ reasons are excellent, but the truth is that if one cares to, one can respond to them, one can oppose them. But I’m sure that the element that convinces us, in what we have of Socrates’ dialogues, is probably a kind of magic in the writing. It’s in every writer in fact. It’s by means of the magical side that one can reach the reasonable, or the reasoning side. Of course it’s a paradox, but paradoxes are true. In any case, they have as much chance of being true as logical truths do. [1]

Given this paradox and these equivocal conditions, on what basis does philosophy proceed? Indeed, on this view, one cannot objectively prove why the good magic of Socrates is better than the bad magic of Hitler, or why it is worth spending time reflecting on La Règle du Jeu. The difference the film makes is more than a matter of taste; it is a truth that has given definition to historical experience that is itself an irreducible fact of that experience. The world revealed by the film is more real than the indifferent or ideological worlds it displaces because it still offers purchase for a collective exploration; in the long run, good magic sustains the scrutiny of dialogue and reflection in a way that bad magic can’t. It is this dialogical orientation that gives philosophy its radical motion and marks it out as an infinitely rigorous task. In betting against its misrecognition, philosophy assumes that our desire for truth is always turning bad magic good, widening our horizons while honing in on a singular reality. As bitter as it might sometimes seem, philosophy is driven by the faith that human life is a happy accident or gift: however rarely or reluctantly we reflect on our encounters with truth, they never cease to testify that the world is, in the words of Walt Whitman, “different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.” [2]

Bash Khan

[1] Renoir on Renoir: interviews, essays, and remarks, Jean Renoir. p.121. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, 1989.

2] Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” in Malcolm Cowley, ed. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) p.30. Penguin Books. New York, 1977.


It’s not the case as the naïve might think that democracy is inconsistent with indoctrination. In a state in which you can control the population by force – a feudal state, a military run state, or what we nowadays call a totalitarian state – it really doesn’t matter very much what people believe or what they think because you’ve got a bludgeon over their head and you can control what they do. They obey. But when the state loses the bludgeon and when you lose the capacity (in a democracy) to coerce people by force and when the voice of the people can be heard, you’ve got to make sure it says the right thing. Therefore, you need techniques of manufacture of consent, and propaganda, and thought-control, and indoctrination. (Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky)

Peter Wintonick and Mark Archbar’s Manufacturing Consent is a 1992 documentary film about the life and thought of Noam Chomsky, and specifically his thoughts on the political economy of the media. The film avoids conventional documentary features – voiceover narration, chronological exposition – favouring instead a dialectical approach both in terms of form and content. This means that Chomsky is presented largely in debate and interviews, and the juxtaposition of those against whom he is pitted is judicious, telling, and often entertaining. In an interview with William Buckley Jnr, for example, he admits that he is wont to lose his temper on such occasions. The sleek Buckley imperiously warns him not to adding, “If you did, I’d smash you in the Goddamn face” – Ivy League arrogance mobilised to put the upstart Jewish subversive in his place.

Philosophically, Chomsky’s thesis about the encroachment of media propaganda into every avenue of political, social, and cultural life with their creation of what he calls “necessary illusions” that maintain the dominance of particular elite groups, carries echoes from Adorno and Horkheimer’s account in The Dialectic of Enlightenment concerning the mass media empires of the culture industry and their tendencies toward rationalization, standardization, and conformity which they interpreted as a consequence of the triumph of the instrumental rationality that was coming to pervade and structure ever more aspects of life. Thus, they argued, while culture once cultivated individuality, it was now promoting submission, and was a crucial part of “the totally administered society” that was producing “the end of the individual.” For Chomsky, as he meticulously details through a fusillade of facts, media corporations are concerned less with producing “the end of the individual” than they are with producing the end of any feeling of solidarity or community or organized resistance against the agenda that they set.

One could argue that the genealogy of Chomsky’s notions can be traced further back to Marx’s analyses about the relations of production. Society for Marx is the sum total of social relations connecting its members. Market forces appear to regulate everything, but what is really behind those market forces has become obscured because the social relationship between people or their relation with nature is expressed as a commercial relationship between things (money, commodities, and capital). Commerce not only introduces a proliferation of relationships between tradeable ‘things,’ but commercial relations also begin to govern and regulate the pattern and techniques of human contact. Media corporations, as they increasingly narrow into global conglomerates, distil these patterns and techniques to such an extent that human contact appears locked into a capitalist doctrine. Media exchange, much like commodity exchange, objectifies social relations to the point where they escape from conscious human control, and exist such that they can be recognized only by abstract thought. Again, the clear result is that any notion of solidarity or community suffers.

Chomsky’s ideas also have parallels with Foucault’s notion of knowledge/power discourses and the manner in which social structures and the dominant tendencies within them come to formulate the prevailing ideological standards of any given period. In effect, what one deems to be truth or valid knowledge is based upon the discourse of that time; epistemology is reduced to power relations. Thus, discourses within the established media will always lead the way to instantiating a particular worldview, a particular knowledge geared towards their particular (elite) interests; towards ‘manufacturing consent’ about the validity of their truth claims. Indeed, Manufacturing Consent contains a brief scene in which Chomsky participates in a debate with Foucault entitled “Justice versus Power,” which highlights not just the parallels between them but also their differences.

It is interesting that when faced with the kind of precise, surgical evidence that Chomsky provides against the media organisations that he critiques, spokespersons for the latter often fall back on weak institutional arguments, or the well-worn tactic of dismissing any dissenting voice as merely a lunatic ‘conspiracy theorist.’ This tactic is particularly favoured by the New York Times journalists in their response to Chomsky’s overwhelming data about their and the rest of the mainstream American media’s silence over the genocidal invasion of East Timor by Indonesia (aided and abetted by the U.S government), as opposed to the clamorous outcry and the many column inches afforded to the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia.

If Part One of Manufacturing Consent illustrates selected Chomskyan ideas on American media, Part Two looks for alternative media networks and finds a host of print media, local radio, and TV stations in the States that are resisting the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN media hegemony. It also features a telling sequence filmed at George Bush Senior’s Presidential inauguration ceremony. To the accompaniment of Bush’s metallic drone in his Presidential address the camera threads through the crowds and away across the rooftops until it rests on the backstreet clusters of satellite media vans, as if to show whether the real power lies.

Bash Khan

WAKING LIFE, Richard Linklater, 2001

Waking Life
is an animated story about a nameless young man, played by Wiley Wiggins, who finds himself trapped in a continuous series of dreams. He moves from one scene to another, listening to a wide array of theories that range from the sublime to the ridiculous from a varied cast of philosophers, intellectuals, and crackpots. The text to the film states that: “Waking Life features a complex interweaving of conversations with professors, artists, writers and performers. There is no single theory behind the film. Rather the film is an exploration from many points of view of past and current trends in philosophy.”

As a result the content is ostensibly anecdotal. In effect, much of the film hangs on whether one feels that the anecdotes work or not, and this means that it has a propensity to infuriate and obfuscate as much as it has to enlighten or to entertain.

Director Richard Linklater states in commentary that all of the ideas expressed in the film should be accessible to viewers, even though the dialogue is conceptually dense. Many of the exchanges in the film were generated from the actual views of the professionals or intellectuals who appear.

The film explores questions about personal identity and the nature of consciousness and asks whether we can ever section off definitively the meanings that we apportion to our waking life and give them priority over the meanings we apportion to our dreams?

This gives rise to a whole host of philosophical questions that are addressed throughout the film. Some of these questions are outlined below and can be found in full through the following link:
Please ignore these questions if you feel you want to watch the film without the burden of any prior commentary. Alternatively, you may want to keep these questions in mind as a general guide whilst you watch the film. The choice is yours.

1. The man in the boat/car states that his vehicle is a window to the world, in which every moment is a show. He glides along, remaining in a state of constant departure, while always arriving. The ride, he states, does not require an explanation, only occupants. This scenario parallels Hume’s problem of personal identity: our identities seem to consist of fleeting perceptions. Hume was troubled by this problem and felt that our minds in fact construct a more lasting notion of the self. The boat/car man, though, seems to live out Hume’s worst fears. What’s so bad about how the boat/car man approaches life?

2. Wiley attends a philosophy lecture by real life philosophy professor Robert Solomon, at the University of Texas at Austin. Solomon is lecturing on existentialism, presenting it optimistically as a philosophy of creative freedom. After class Solomon tells Wiley that he disagrees with postmodernist philosophy since it views humans as social constructions, the mere confluence of forces, fragmented, and marginalized. This gives people excuses for their behaviour. Existentialists, on the other hand, feel that we are responsible for our actions, and this responsibility stems from human freedom. We should not, Solomon argues, see ourselves as victims of various forces. Do we really need notions of freedom to give us a sense of responsibility?

3. Wiley visits the home of Kim Krizan, a screenwriter who discusses the nature of language as a system of signs. The fact that we can create words that refer to tangible things, such as a tree, is not really remarkable. What is remarkable, she explains, is how words convey abstract concepts such as love or frustration. When we say these words, and people understand us, it amounts to a kind of spiritual communion. That feeling might be transient, but, she thinks, it is what we live for. Is the conveying of abstract notions as rewarding as she contends?

4. Wiley visits Eamonn Healy, Chemistry professor at Austin. Healy discusses human evolution and the values that are associated with it: parasitism, dominance, morality, war, and predation. In this scheme “the individual is at the whim of the collective.” He then states that we are beginning a new kind of evolution, which involves bio-technology (artificial intelligence, neuro-biology), which will occur much more rapidly, and involve a new set of values: truth, loyalty, justice, freedom. Here the individual becomes more valuable in its own right. Healy seems to be somewhat optimistic about futuristic human-robot life forms. Are there some grounds for his optimism?

5. The man who sets himself on fire argues that society hasn’t given us an opportunity to voice our opinions beyond the rather meaningless voting process. He feels this way in particular since his particular message is destruction and chaos. The issue isn’t one of censorship but of audience access. What’s so important about having an audience for our opinions, especially if we’re ignored – just as bystanders ignored him as he was burning to death?

6. The couple lying in bed together discuss a version of Chuang-tzu’s dream paradox: a man dreams he’s a butterfly, but he might really be a butterfly dreaming that he’s a man. The young woman thinks that her waking life might be the memories of an old woman in the last moments of her life. The young man suggests that recent studies of the brain activity of sleeping or dying people show that a lifetime of experiences can be condensed into a few actual minutes of activity. If this is true, does this make the “all is a dream” hypothesis any more compelling?

7. The couple also discuss the notion of collective memory, a view articulated by Rupert Sheldrake, which involves a large pool of knowledge that we all draw from. The young man states that this would explain seemingly spontaneous world-wide innovative leaps in science and the arts, prompted by people working independently of each other. “Once the answers are out there, we can all pick up on them; it’s like we’re all telepathically sharing our experiences.” Is there a more simple explanation to such world-wide innovative leaps?

8. Wiley visits UT Austin philosophy professor David Sosa, who argues that there’s not much room for free will. Classic philosophers believed that God set things up in advance. More contemporary philosophers maintain that humans are just a system of molecules. The big bang set up the initial conditions, and our human lives are just the playing out of the subatomic particles. This picture, he argues, threatens the idea that humans have a special dignity. Does determinism necessarily undermine human dignity?

9. Sosa argues that the indeterminacy of atomic particles does not give us a model for acting free: this at best explains random behaviour. Sosa says that he’d rather be a gear in a big deterministic machine than some random swerving in a probabilistic system. What are the grounds for deciding either way?

10. Libertarian talk show host Alex Jones appears driving through the city speaking through a PA system mounted on his car. He argues that we are being conditioned on a mass scale to give up our freedoms, which society does by making us feel powerless. Instead, Jones argues, we should embrace the “creativity and the dynamic human spirit that refuses to submit.” Is this too simplistic? Is it ever worth giving up some of our creative freedom in exchange for security?

11. English professor Lisa Moore sits in a restaurant with author Carole Dawson discussing the problem of human identity over time. They discuss a theory by Benedict Anderson that we need to construct a story in order to connect, for example, a photograph of ourselves as an infant with who we are now. Anderson seems to have in mind fictional stories that we create. Suppose that I attempt to create a fictional story about my past in which I would be the forgotten heir to the British throne. Wouldn’t historical reality keep my fictional account in check?

12. The monkey in the classroom expresses the views of Steve Fitch, a photographer and musician. According to Fitch, art is the language that humans created to distance ourselves from our empty and degraded human past and reach for a new world. Is art progressive in this manner, or is it just as easily a tool that can be used for regression?

13. The second half of the film, which focuses on lucid dreams, explores the philosophical issue of appearance/reality; much the same way that Descartes in the Meditations raises the question of whether he is dreaming. One character argues that, “to the functional system of neural activity that creates our world, there is no difference between dreaming a perception and an action, and actually the waking perception and action.” Descartes raised the issue as a matter of theoretical doubt about the real world. Does the above scientific theory make the dreaming/waking problem any less theoretical?

14. A gang of intellectuals roam the streets, spouting philosophical one-liners. They see an old man who was on a telephone pole for no apparent reason. One of the gang comments “he’s no worse than us; he’s all action and no theory, and we’re all theory and no action.” Is there any way to determine what the best balance is between theory and action?

15. Wiley bumps into a red-haired women in a stairwell, who laments that people behave like they’re part of an ant colony – acting out of efficiency and politeness – with no real human engagement. D.H. Lawrence calls such engagement the confrontation between souls. This also parallels Martin Buber’s distinction between I-It and I-Thou relationships. As with Buber’s theory, we can ask this woman: do we really want to live in a society in which all of our encounters with people involve genuine human engagement?

16. Poet Timothy “Speed” Levitch meets with Wiley on a bridge and states that self-awareness consists of discovering that one is a dream figure in another person’s dream. Taken literally, this has implications for Wiley’s current dilemma. For the rest of us, who are not dreaming, what is the more metaphorical meaning of Levitch’s point?

17. Wiley’s last encounter in the film is with a man playing pinball who relates a theory by Philip K. Dick (author of Blade Runner and Total Recall) that it’s really 50 AD, but there’s an evil spiritual force trying to make us forget that the kingdom of God is immanent. Time, according to Dick, is just a continuous distraction. He then relates a variation of Dick’s theory that he once had in a dream: the year that we’re stuck in is not really 50 AD; instead, there is only one instant, and in this instant God is asking us whether we want to be one with eternity. Time, then, is just our constant saying “no” to God’s invitation. Do these theories have any merit beyond their initial shock value?

Bash Khan