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Film and the phenomenology of art: Reappraising Merleau-Ponty on cinema as form, medium, and expression

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Original languageEnglish
JournalNew Literary History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jul 2016


This essay argues that the most influential strand of contemporary phenomenological film theory, indebted to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of perception and embodiment, has tended to under-emphasize or distort the specifically aesthetic dimension of cinematic experience. This stems, in part, from a neglect of the rich tradition of phenomenological aesthetics - including (ironically) certain of Merleau-Ponty’s own writings on art and cinema - which may be persuasively seen to challenge the medium essentialism, anti-intentionalism, and disproportionate privileging of vision and space (e.g. over time) in some contemporary film theory that invokes phenomenology.

A fresh and largely sympathetic analysis of Merleau-Ponty’s essay “Film and the New Psychology” and related writings (alongside Mikel Dufrenne’s phenomenology of aesthetic experience) helps to differentiate between an ‘existential phenomenology’ of the film medium and an existential phenomenology of film art. The latter is rooted in cinematic 'form' and aesthetic perception as distinct from ordinary or non-aesthetic perception. In addition to explaining why the two are distinct, the essay indicates some of the ways in which a phenomenology of film art, as seldom pursued, has much to offer to film theory and the philosophy of film.

    Research areas

  • film theory , phenomenology of film, phenomenology of art , phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty, Vivian Sobchack, aesthetics , philosophy of film , philosophy of art, Mikel Dufrenne , film philosophy

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