[University of Virginia Press; 2012]

Many recent philosophical debates about the locus of human agency have turned on very large issues: for instance, does secularism free up the possibility to be the true authors of our lives, or does the disappearance of religion render our actions more or less meaningless (in any rich sense)?

Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelley’s All Things Shining and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age give a broad diagnosis of this condition and venture two competing answers. Has the reign of the commodity, refined by technology, turned us into bundles of manufactured desires seeking fulfillment? Or should we embrace the new opportunities technology affords us in a “post-human” age? Both sides of this debate significantly broaden the more technical question of how we understand the actions of others and ourselves, adding to it a complicating historical component, giving the question an added gravity.

In two recent books Robert Pippin has offered a compelling and unique contribution to this philosophical project through the seemingly modest path of examining two genres that flourished in mid-20th century American film: the Western and film noir. “Westerns,” Pippin writes in Fatalism in American Film Noir, “adopt a mythic style of narration appropriate to founding narratives, presenting us with questions about the possibility of law, often the question of the psychological possibility of allegiance to law, in prelaw situations.” Noirs on the other hand “concern something like ‘the other side’ of the mythological coin, human life under conditions of corrupt or decaying or incompetent law, the postlaw world of disillusionment one might say.”

That these genres tracked one another (mixing for example in the character of Holly Martins, a writer of Westerns, in Carol Reed’s noir classic The Third Man) is an interesting topic for another discussion, but Pippin is very clear that his focus is on the philosophical question of agency. He writes that “in the best noirs we are presented not merely with a form of life shadowed, as a matter of historical fact, by a growing, shared, heightened sense of fatalism and alienation, but what we see is, in effect, a partially worked out picture of what it would be to live in such a world.”

The notion of agency that Pippin wants to trouble through his “cinematic philosophy” is what he calls the “reflective model.” In this model, our actions are “inwardly directed,” which is to say that when we act it is on the basis of a process of reflection and control, during which “we more or less know what we are about” (to borrow a representative stylistic flourish from analytic philosophy). Variants of the reflective model that run through the Western cannon include Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche, and many of our intuitions about self-knowledge or how we determine moral responsibility will line up with this view of agency. We are not likely to broaden our appeals to fate anytime soon, nor are we going to malign a model of deliberative planning.

Yet Pippin is quite convincing in arguing that the characters we meet in film noirs, and the kinds of actions that we witness them performing, are not well served by the reflective model of agency. In a typical noir we get people acting without a clear sense of “what they are about.” Major characters initiate sequences that end in their own deaths, act contrary to basic facts that characters may or may not know about, or are surrounded by a field of unreliable agents (such as the notorious femme fatale).

This is interesting not because it confirms the post-WWII historical moment of American fatalism or gives more firepower to a psychoanalytic reading of film noir (already one of the more common forms of criticism when issues of agency are being discussed). Rather, in the three core chapters of the book — discussing the role of personal history in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, the “intentional fool” in Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, and the atmosphere of mass-deception in consumer societies in Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street — Pippin demonstrates the significant blind spots that mar popular conceptions of agency and begins to develop a vocabulary to fill in these gaps.

The goal is clearly normative at some level: “No theory of agency that does not acknowledge this historical variability [of the relationship between intention and responsibility] from the outset seems to me to have much credibility.” Given our recent history, an attempt to develop a theory of agency that probes behaviors like risk-taking and gambling is a welcome philosophical exercise.

Fatalism in American Film Noir is enjoyable on a number of levels. Pippin is justified in calling it a piece of cinematic philosophy (as opposed to philosophy of cinema) because it uses the grammar of these films to do some original philosophical work on their own terms. Some might be skeptical about turning the philosophical exploration of agency over to popular films, but why are these scenarios necessarily worse than the beloved thought experiments that usually underwrite the reflective model? Furthermore, Pippin avoids the reductionist tendencies of much cultural criticism (of the cultural studies sort), or the kind of psychoanalytic read that these films often get. It is true that he is highly associative at times, and the parenthetical statements pile up as the work goes on. But this is mostly a way to capture the complexity of the notoriously complicated plotlines of noirs, as well as a way to capture insights from the films without slowing down the analysis that is reliant to some extent on the unique philosophical work that cinema can do.

Film noir is an interesting genre. Pippin relates the story of how it got its name: French critics were surprised by the noticeably dark turn that American films had taken after the two countries reestablished contact post-WWII, and compared the films to the French série noire crime novels. The influence of these films in France was worked through by both critics and filmmakers, leading to the masterful post-war policiers of Jean-Pierre Melville and eventually inspiring the Nouvelle Vague. Film noir is also interesting for the forms of life that it puts on display, a strange admixture of contemptible and compelling qualities residing in a single character. I find them appealing for reasons that are often very difficult to pin down.

Terse philosophical debates about the nature of agency can be significantly less interesting, so it is to Pippin’s great credit that he can enliven topics like whether action is best described by a voluntarist or a compatibalist framework. He ends the book invoking Bernard Williams’ claim that “in important ways, we are, in our ethical situation more like human beings in antiquity than any Western people have been in the meantime.” By this Williams was referring to our declining faith in the core precepts of post-enlightenment humanism and a growing acknowledgment of our tragic limitations. If this is the case, then Pippin is putting forward what in his mind is an appropriate “modern aesthetic” capable of a similar kind of illumination that we get from returning to the tragic poets.

This is a bold proposal, but to my mind a welcome contribution to the broad discussions about human agency that we should be having today.


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