“On Film” reading group + “Alien” series


As a part of preparation for the 3rd International Philosophy Graduate Conference, where we will be welcoming professor Stephen Mulhall as the keynote speaker, we are organizing a reading group for professor Mulhall’s book “On Film”.

Starting from Friday, November 6th, we will be screening movies from the Alien series, and reading the accompanying chapters from the book. Everyone interested in the work of professor Mulhall, film or philosophy is welcome to join. The atmosphere is very informal (we won’t be having any exams :)), but we will be aiming for moderately serious discussion.

Why the Alien series? The answer is best left to Mulhall himself:

“The four members of the Alien series (Alien [1979]; Aliens [1986];
Alien3 [1992]; Alien Resurrection [1997]) managed to combine popular
success and critical interest in a way matched by very few
films produced in the last two decades of the twentieth century.1
They focus on Flight Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney
Weaver) as she confronts the threat posed to herself, her companions
and the human race by the spread of a hostile alien species.
But this description hardly begins to capture their peculiar economy
of simplicity and power – the charismatic force of Weaver’s
incarnation of Ripley’s despairing but indomitable courage, the
uncanny otherness of the aliens, and of course the alien universe
itself, stripped of the clutter of social particularity to reveal
receding horizons of mythic significance. It now seems as if it
was clear from the outset that it would take more than one film
to explore those horizons, and thereby to unfold the full meaning
of Ripley’s intimate loathing of her foes.
But there are, of course, more specific reasons for choosing to
focus on this series of films in a philosophical book on film –
reasons having to do with what one might call the underlying
logic of the alien universe they depict. For these movies are preoccupied,
even obsessed, with a variety of inter-related anxieties
about human identity – about the troubled and troubling question
of individual integrity and its relation to the body, sexual
difference and nature. What exactly is my place in nature? How
far does the (natural) human ability to develop technology alienate

us from the natural world? Am I (or am I in) my body? How sharply does my gender define me? How vulnerable does my body make me? Is sexual reproduction a threat to my integrity, and,
if so, does the reality and nature of that threat depend on whether I
am a man or a woman? These are themes that emerge with quasimathematical
elegance from the series’ original conception of an
alien species which involves human beings in the furtherance of
its own reproductive cycle, and which thereby confronts its human
protagonists with the flesh-and-blood basis of their existence.
This issue – call it the relation of human identity to embodiment –
has been central to philosophical reflection in the modern period
since Descartes; but the sophistication and self-awareness with
which these films deploy and develop that issue, together with a
number of related issues also familiar to philosophers, suggest to
me that they should themselves be taken as making real contributions
to these intellectual debates. In other words, I do not
look to these films as handy or popular illustrations of views and
arguments properly developed by philosophers; I see them rather
as themselves reflecting on and evaluating such views and arguments,
as thinking seriously and systematically about them in just
the ways that philosophers do. Such films are not philosophy’s raw
material, nor a source for its ornamentation; they are philosophical
exercises, philosophy in action – film as philosophizing.”

From “On Film”


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