I find it difficult to address the state of theory today, but not because something is missing, being done wrong, or simply not being done enough. I have never felt less pressed than I do now to justify the work I do, though that may have something to do with age and professional comfort, which I say in full grip of survivor’s guilt. I know how hard it is to secure a tenure-track job and achieve tenure in a supportive environment when one takes the kinds of risks that theorists must take. To write theory is to be compelled by risk, since we only ever need a theory when enduring explanations fail, or must be made to. And I have very little faith that tenure is more durable today than the old boy networks (where the concept and practice of tenure emerged in the first place, sorry to say) that only get stronger, I fear, as they become more unified; more unified because more secreted. If there is a battle being waged against theory that requires our vigilance, it is the one being mounted with increasing frequency in conservative politics in the U.S. against critical race theory.
What I want to describe, instead, are two of the reasons I have devoted myself, for at least fifteen years now, to moral philosophy. The first reason concerns the technological preoccupations of film and media theorists, including the ongoing interest in the new of new media. I find that most theories of film (celluloid or digital)—regardless of the merits or shortcomings of any instance—are efforts to understand technologies increasingly designed for obsolescence, even when obsolescence is only an unfortunate consequence of an otherwise compelling aesthetic or ethical aspiration. A theory of film, even as it tends responsibly to the material and economic conditions of its emergence, is fated to disappear with what it describes. Unless, of course, we go on teaching the work simply because it mattered once and thus feels like knowledge. None of this means that we do not need to tend to the material and economic conditions of moving image media. It is just that we might do better to give up on the idea that any theory can exist in a prolonged state of generality, which is too often confused by the ones who profess to theorize with its marketability. Any theory worthy of the name resists generalizations made or protected without radical specification.
I read moral philosophy for the same reason I watch films: to experience difference, to learn something about myself, to learn something about others, including, most of the time, what it means to take seriously what little I may or can know about another. I assume that most of us go to the movies for similar reasons.
As Émilie Hache and Bruno Latour have said, morality needs to be distinguished from moralism. The former, in their view—and it is what concerns me—involves increased sensitization to the experiences of others, to the differences of others, and always along aesthetically serious lines (2010). It has nothing to do with categorical sorting, the domain of moralism. It takes a serious work of art to be morally compelling (and they include as an example the sensitivity of Kant’s writing against the categorical character of his concepts), insofar as that implies the refusal of easy forms of categorization, a refusal of forms of repetition that are aimed at facile forms of belonging, or belonging in relations of identity instead of difference. Serious works of art, like serious philosophy, let the questions raised be actual questions. Most moral philosophers are not concerned to imagine metaphysical justifications for categorical distinctions and modes of valuation, but to expose what fails us in that practice. I’m not so convinced that political theories of film and media have been, on average, as capacious. The Left is no less moralistic than the Right. It should not surprise us that politics are becoming more and more polarized since we ourselves become more and more entrenched in our values and beliefs.
Art summons our vulnerability; categories repress it, or simply allow us to ignore the trouble in us. The point, as Stanley Cavell put it in Pursuits of Happiness, is “to let the object or the work of your interest teach you how to think about it” (1981, 10). This implies, for me, at least two things: that in being taught by the object, or another, how to think about it/them, we no longer need categories, aesthetic or moral, to describe it or them, since the work comes fully described, albeit in grammar we cannot know in advance. Our task is to become always better readers, always better listeners, and always better writers. It also means that art and moral sensitivity both imply a break with certainty.
The questions moral philosophers ask include: What is a good life? How am I obligated to others? At what point is empathy opposed to altruism? What happens when I act in a manner that opposes the beliefs I keep about myself? How can I care about a future that will not include me? And so on. Films regularly show us worlds and things that we cannot tolerate. They also always show us other ways the world we know can be organized. So, too, for moral philosophy, at least when it is being written, as “philosophy” implies, as a question. Moral philosophy is philosophy, not theology. And it begins and ends with human experience (and animals, of course); does not lead, necessarily, with technology, though technological we also are.
Clint Enns, “Circling the Image.” Clint Enns, December 26, 2022. YouTube video, 1:57. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQ0il8sSBRQ.
Émilie Hache and Bruno Latour, “Morality or Moralism? An Exercise in Sensitization,” trans. Patrick Camiller, Common Knowledge 16, no 2. (2010): 311-330.
Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981)