by Amélie Berger Soraruff
We all have a friend — or more —who watches Godard, reads Dostoyevsky and has a taste of Hegel on Sunday mornings. And when the time comes, after a fancy dinner with red wine, to debate about cinema, you know you can’t possibly admit that you actually enjoy Marvel movies. Even Coppola is not on your side here!
So there you are, with your shameful inclination for superhero crap. And because you want to keep a certain reputation, you feign your love for Le Mépris (yes, you use the French title because that’s what fancy people do) even though your cheeks flush so hard they could serve as a traffic sign in the middle of Las Vegas.
You’re not a philosopher, right? You don’t read Dosto-whatever-his-name-is and your copy of The Phenomenology of Spirit has been lying for years under the leg of your shaky bookshelf.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying mindless crap. We all need some from time to time. But how can you rightfully defend your likes in front of a bunch of arrogant and dusty people? By beating them at their own game, surely.
First of all, you need a story. There is nothing wrong with that, even Plato had recourse to fiction when he could not prove the origin of the world and decided it had something to do with carpentry.
Now, you need characters. First in the ring, Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher, mostly known for his essay on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. His challenger: Bernard Stiegler, French Philosopher, known for being the dark genius behind Technics and Time (it’s like a Star Wars trilogy, but more boring).
So you take a step forward, you drink a bit of your wine and you say to your table companions, busy about finding out whether or not the last Polanski counts as a good film:
“Hey! Let’s imagine for a moment that Bernard Stiegler and Walter Benjamin decide to go to the cinema together.”
People may look at you very weirdly, but you need to be courageous.
“Stay with me. They are both interested in the impact of cinema on modern culture, so it makes sense to initiate a dialogue between the two. Let’s now imagine that they watch Iron Man. Stiegler thinks it’s a hell of a good idea as it will enable him to introduce Benjamin to his theory regarding the technical essence of the human. (Whatever, it’s not important.) Two hours later, they both leave the screening and agree that the movie was “distracting”. Awkwardly, they do not feel the same way about it. Benjamin, for his part, is quite satisfied. Not only does Iron Man make witty references to Machiavelli, it comes across as the graphic expression of the masses archaic impulses they are forced to repress. Yep, guys! Tony Stark does what you cannot do; he kicks ass, smashes cars, saves the damsel in destress. And you identify with him, dreaming about wearing the same suit and strike back against those who have wronged you, while staying on your seat, eating popcorn. In short, the movie acts as a therapeutic release of the audience’s unconscious energies.
Your companions at the dinner table nod, it seems you know your stuff. So you go on:
“But Stiegler remains puzzled, pointing out that the Hollywood blockbuster remains quite dumb. And also dangerous. Unlike Benjamin, Stiegler does not see how the movie can immunize the masses from their worst impulses. It in fact does the opposite!”
Someone sighs, you need to get to the point, otherwise you’ll lose their attention (philosophers are human after all):
“Don’t you get it? Stiegler and Benjamin disagree on the value of distraction here, and therefore of entertainment. Benjamin praises the movie for its cathartic virtues, whereas Stiegler attacks the movie for encouraging psychic regression by the means of repetitive action scenes, short dialogues and rather inexistent character psychology. In addition to that, Iron Man openly spreads American values and glorifies capitalism. It is entertaining insofar as the movie captures its audience through the most archaic drives. So what does it mean? It means that Stiegler refuses to make a difference between positive and negative distraction, as if distraction was always debilitating. I think it is a bit reductive and this is how Benjamin comes as particularly useful: movies mobilize the masses in virtue of their shock effect, yes. But this distraction is another way to experience the aesthetic object”.
The audience stares at you, but you have a conclusion to make, so don’t let yourself be disturbed by their big owl eyes.
“In this story, Walter Benjamin is happy with Iron Man not only because the movie is cathartic, but also because in being intended for the masses it promotes the dissemination of culture. For Stiegler the movie remains an instrument of the economical powers in place; it is a falsely cultural object contributing to American imperialism.”
“So what?” growls someone.
You need to be sharp here:
“So Benjamin’s insight on positive distraction defends the futile as aesthetically and intellectually productive. And I think there is a lesson to take from there that you, like Stiegler, seems to joyfully ignore. And…and I watched Avengers: Endgame yesterday, it was great!”
Congratulations, you just successfully came out as a lover of mindless crap.
About the author:
Dr. Amélie Berger Soraruff is a fellow of the Scottish Center for Continental Philosophy. Her research focuses on technologies and their psycho-political significance. Her areas of interest include French Philosophy, Media Theory, Phenomenology and (sometimes) Aesthetics. When she does not teach philosophy or think about her dead-end future, she writes novels.