Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Donato Loia reviews Philosophy-Screens

Mauro Carbone, Philosophy-Screens: From Cinema to the Digital Revolution. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2019. 166 pp. 

Review by Donato Loia

30 October 2019

Since Plato articulated the Allegory of the Cave, scholars have associated philosophy with a fight against screens. If screens are expressions of illusion, then philosophy’s duty is to overcome their deceit. In his well-written and succinct Philosophy-Screens: From Cinema to the Digital Revolution, Mauro Carbone complicates and reverses that long-standing assumption in order to provide newer criteria for looking at screens and their philosophical implications. Reviving Gilles Deleuze’s famous formulation of “philosophy-cinema,” Carbone calls for the elaboration of “philosophy-screens,” which is structured around three main premises. First, screens’ purposes change over time as much as our understanding of their diverse cultural histories. Second, new technologies determine new modes of perception and even new desires. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, screens do not only conceal, but also make us see, perceive, understand, and misunderstand. 

In the first part of the book, Carbone overviews French philosophical contributions to cinema’s Gestalt (p. 12). Carbone studies the French philosophers in depth for their efforts to understand film’s ontological components. Simultaneously, he more broadly investigates the film experience for the cinematic screen’s ability to make viewers understand more clearly the functioning of perception and to complicate fundamental dualisms of the Western tradition. 

Among discussions on Henri Bergson, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-François Lyotard, and Deleuze, Carbone pays the greatest attention to Merleau-Ponty who has more clearly theorized both the specificity of cinematic expression and the epochal novelty of cinema. According to Merleau-Ponty, cinema does not simply narrate or explain or, to reuse the famous Albertian formulation, open a window onto the world; rather, it presents itself as a continuous whole in which “the meaning of a shot therefore depends on what precedes it in the movie, and this succession of scenes creates a new reality which is not merely the sum of its parts” (p. 12). In other terms, the temporal Gestalt of the cinematic screen demonstrates that the perception of an image depends upon the perception of the sequence in which it is integrated. In the same way, any theory of the perceiving body must take into account the correlation between subject and world or between consciousness and body. Thus, the formation of new optical and perceptual apparatuses helped shift philosophy’s focus from Plato’s “immutable Ideas” and binary oppositions to a complex examination of “the mingling of consciousness with the world, its involvement in a body, and its coexistence with others” (p. 18). 

As follows, Carbone elegantly reinterprets the Western philosophical tradition’s canonical dualism, which contraposes reality/image and truth/appearance. Through his formulation of the arche-screen and his reinterpretation of Plato’s Allegory of the CaveCarbone traces the transhistorical need for human cultures to rely on screens in order to see (pp. 66–71). In his discussions on Merleau-Ponty, Lyotard, and Plato, Carbone examines the “ontological rehabilitation of surface” and reconsiders that the screen not only conceals but also reveals “in its constitutive ‘ambiguity’––the truth of experience” (p. 41). 

In the second part of the book, Carbone considers the contemporary epoch’s novelty occasioned by the advent of the digital revolution. Framing his analyses with anglophone sources including Vivian Sobchack, Sherry Turkle, Richard Grusin, Erkki Huhtamo, and W. J. T. Mitchell, the author suggests that, although the Albertian window, the cinematic screen, and the computer screen share common elements, the “screen as it affirmed itself beginning with the emergence of cinema is what has become today’s reference optical apparatus” (p. 73, emphasis in original). Carbone argues primarily that every historical time develops a particular optical apparatus, and that optical apparatus mirrors a major philosophical framework. For instance, the Albertian paradigm of the window refers to the “frontality of representation” and to a philosophical conception of a fully-conscious and transcendental subject who is detached from the world (p. 77). Through ample film examples, Carbone argues that the history of film––its materials of production, content, perspective––leads to cinema’s “enveloping of vision” and forming of audiences’ desires to “enter” the screen (p. 77). Thus, the cinematic and postcinematic screen prepares audiences to recognize a mutual relationship between reality and image and between perceiving subject and perceived object.  

Now, the peculiar immersivity of new media distinguishes it from the immersivity of the film experience. In his analyses of multimedia screens, such as interactive billboards and global media coverage of 9/11, Carbone suggests that the immersive character of contemporary screens sometimes leads audiences to understand that screens have their own subjectivity. That is to say, screens act as “‘animated beings,’ [or,] quasi-subjects” in relation to viewers (p. 84). Building on Huhtamo’s work, Carbone notes that trends in giantification and miniaturization of screens suggest that audiences ambiguously desire to both succumb to and control displays. In other terms, screens act as prostheses that transform viewers’ sensible experiences and contribute to processes of subjectification (p. 106). On this topic, the book would benefit from further elaboration on important changes in human sensibilities and desires. For instance, how does new media participate in these processes of subjectification or affirm certain configuration of the subject? The author hints at “development-of-potentialities,” “anesthetization” processes, and an increased “atrophy of experience” (pp. 100–4), but his theoretical analyses here could be extended more to contemporary lived experience, particularly given the emphasis on shifts in perceptions of subjectivity.

Bringing continental philosophy and phenomenological studies to bear on contemporary media studies and film theory, Philosophy-Screens should prompt further contributions on the screens and desires that fill our perceptual universe.