"The passions are to do with fire and ice, light and night, water and submersion... Our passions change themselves and change us into aquatic, celestial, solar or volcanic phenomena: illuminated or nocturnal, palpitating or drifting off." (Luce Irigaray, "Divine Women", 1984)
Those who follow trends in philosophy are likely to be aware that much noise was been made lately about a new branch on the tree called, variously, Speculative Realism, New Materialism, or (more fancifully) OOO, for Object Oriented Ontology. Like many new trends, it already has different sects, emphases, and intellectual leaders. It also has swept in with the rebellious air of dispensing with all other types of thought before it — on connaît la chanson! But if OOO is rather like a 'fashion', its central challenge is, nonetheless, something worth facing.
OOO contests the deeply held notion that 'man is the measure of all things' — that everything in the world exists to be processed by and evaluated through human consciousness. It asks: what if there are things that remain, resolutely, before or beyond our consciousness? Like objects, animals, plants — the earth itself, or indeed the cosmos? The scale of this new philosophy is immense, from the largest galaxy to the smallest, microscopic particle — a scenario in which humanity is just one element, one tiny flicker of existence.
As a cinephile, I greet OOO with a certain familiarity. How can anyone love cinema and not love its objects, its 'non-human fluxes', its energies and intensities that go beyond individual subjectivity? Isn't this what Jean Epstein, Siegfried Kracauer, Lesley Stern and Gilles Deleuze, among many other film theorists, have spent so many years directing our attention to? Hasn't the great, noble struggle of film criticism always been to get the 'average movie goer' off their obsessive fix on merely human (and humanist) stuff like character-personalities and people-centred stories?
The cinema has long been teaching us that the human being only an element in the frame. Only a figure among innumerable shapes, figures, and energetic creatures. Recent films including Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light (2010) and Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011) are obviously about this kind of re-focussing — but the 'object oriented ontology' of film really hit home for me when I lately re-saw Jean Vigo's great L'Atalante (1934).
Although at least 50 years of writing on this movie have dutifully linked Vigo to the safely distant spectres of Surrealism and Anarchism, it's only today we can fully see that L'Atalante is the prescient triumph of Queer Cinema Meets the New Materialist OOO! This Vigo chap had quite an imagination: most evidently in the immortal character of Jules (Michel Simon), but in fact at every possible level of the filmmaking process, he took 'polymorphous perversity' to a delirious height.
It's a film in which animals take the place of people — after the wedding night of Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo), a cat gives birth between their sheets — and people turn into objects, as in the wonderful souvenir of a male friend's hands that Jules keeps in a jar. Creating cluttered, chaotic, baroque, interior spaces where characters are framed, bisected and dwarfed by architectural fixtures and bric-à-brac, humans are literally just 'part of the furniture' — particularly when the furniture itself seems to come to life, moving and emitting strange noises.
It's a film in which, when Jules is asked to identify a photo of a naked, native woman, he replies: "It's me when I was young". And has there ever been — in the magnificent, erotic, superimposed montage of Jean and Juliette in their separate beds, far apart — a more vivid realisation of those "aquatic, celestial, solar or volcanic phenomena" that make up the very essence of the divine passion known as cinema?