Philosophers have been debating the relationship between thought and language. Does one cause the other? And the proverbial chicken and egg debate; does language come first or thought? Now, relating this to visual culture, one wonders how thoughts may be represented in the brain. Are there words, sentences, and phrases? Or are there images, symbols, and other visual conceptions we tend to keep in our brain inventory and retrieve during the so-called cognition? I tend to accept the latter—we think in images because words are founded upon our visual perceptions. As Foucault has convincingly argued, the meaning that is produced in one historical period will change in another one. This of course is not unlike Rorty’s thinking, if one reads Contingency, irony and solidarity.
Coming back to mental image representations…I often ask a nagging question from myself and others, and that is, “Is there certain circularity inherent in mental image representations?” Some folks claim that they only think in images, while others say they think in words. Of course, I solved this problem by making my own claim (see Wittgenstein and his theory of language being a family of pictures) that words are images. So perhaps speech is not blind.
Take, the film The Bicycle Thief (1948). The neorealist filmmakers were responding to a condition that was a result of that particular history. They had intended their cinema to be a vehicle for social transformation (I discuss this briefly in Deconstructing the Mystique, 2009, and much more in depth and in historical context in Cinema for Transformation (forthcoming 2011)). Given their strong conviction in humanism, their intended message is one of social hope and call for solidarity. A Sicilian proverb says, “Only the spoon knows what is stirring in the pot.” Can cinema help us become the spoon?
Back to Rorty…Rorty’s book (Contingency, irony and solidarity) on the surface seems easy, as is written in a wonderfully fluid prose, but it is quite deep and contains many layers. The reader must return to it many times to see its subtleties. With that said, let me ask, does Rorty think that social transformation will only happen if personal transformation happens? Take care of freedom and democracy will take care of itself? How do freedom movements begin? Can new media play a role in this regard? What exactly is solidarity?
To be sure, Rorty rejects the view that it is possible to discover the meaning of solidarity. His main argument is that solidarity has to be made. The Italian neorealists also communicated this message via The Bicycle Thief, Rome Open City, and other films. They chose the visual to force the audience to see that solidarity is made when the self is able to imagine the other as similar in all important respects to the self. The Bicycle Thief is firstly addressed to the Italian people and secondly to a world full of people capable of cruelty and indifference while at once full of others asking profound existential questions and hoping for human solidarity. The film does present a Sisyphusian dilemma and shows the inability of organized religion to solve social problems. Human suffering is at the heart of the film, but so is hope and love. The father and son relationship is as poignant as cinema can become. The family sticks together, the theater troop friends stick together (they consider each other family) and if only others in society at large—the film seems to suggest—saw each other as family, then Italy could become one big happy family?
I submit to you, as powerful and important as books and manifestos are… the visual can force the audience to see, almost instantly, the other as the self and make the self feel the suffering of the other. Photography and cinema have done this successfully throughout history.
Now I am thinking about a contemporary film, The Matrix (1999). The Wachowski brothers of course are shouting the message of freedom with The Matrix, and doing it with postmodern sensibility in a pastiche mise-en-scene and recycling of old cinema along with scraping ideas from literature, East-West philosophy, and American idealism. They seem to echo what Erich Fromm said about sixty years ago (see Man for Himself) that all human beings are “idealists” and are striving for something beyond the attainment of physical satisfaction. We all want freedom. We cannot explain it, but at once do not fail to understand it…so it seems. Rousseau said famously, “We are free but in chains everywhere.” Do we live in a world analogous to Wachowskis’ postmodern Matrix? Is real reality the one that is mediated through various media? And is that reality real? Has truth finally become completely relative?
There is a philosophic problem known as “the ego-centric predicament” (see Ralph Barton Perry’s treatment of this problem in his excellent book, Present Philosophical Tendencies). As Perry explains it, according to this predicament, the mind is confined to the circle of its own ideas, so it is extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, to know the external world. Can we really step outside our own minds to know whether our ideas correspond to anything external?
One example that I think illustrates this is America’s support of Israel. When Americans travel outside the US—especially these days—they are asked by people of various different countries why do Americans still support Israel? Don’t they see what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians? Are they blind to the facts? Don’t they see the news footage? They have a free and democratic society, why are they stuck in this bubble?
Are we trapped within the boundaries of our own beings? According to Perry, no one can report on the nature of things without being on hand him or herself. It follows then that whatever thing he or she reports does as a matter of fact stand in relation to him or her, as an idea, object of knowledge or experience. In the Matrix, as depicted in a very creative manner, human beings take their mental experience as reality. But the protagonist and ideally the film viewers gradually learn that their “reality” is a “virtual reality” (see Baudrillard) and not a reflection of the “actual” world.
We may not be just batteries for a bunch of computers, as in the Matrix, but given the power of media over our reality and all the perceptions of oneself and one’s conception of “truth,” with some decent education we can see that those aware and in control of power/knowledge complex are constantly at work to manipulate our minds. This mostly happens with images—the power of the image should not be underestimated, and the knowledge of this power should be a priority.