Deweyan Instrumentalism and Film Theory:
The Renovation of Meaning as Criticism

SAAP 2001 Presentation
Phillip Seng
Southern Illinois Unversity @ Carbondale


The characteristic human need is for possession and appreciation of the meaning of things.[1]

The challenge, then, is to understand the complicated ways in which meanings are both assigned and created.[2]

The project of understanding the various ways of assigning and creating meanings is not a recent invention. With the rise of fascism and Hitler’s establishment of Goebbels’ Ministry of People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda, whose apex was seen worldwide in Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will, film theorists assumed this task so as to defend the cinema against critics of two kinds. On the one hand, cinema was seen as too popular, and so not worthy of critical reflection. On the other hand, cinema was too overtly a tool for conveying messages (e.g. newsreels) and so again required no reflection. Riefenstahl’s film sought to persuade masses and change minds, something films had done for years. This time, however, there were consequences beyond profit and loss, enjoyment and disappointment.

            The events of history called into question the place of cinema in society, and beyond that the structure of society itself. Film theorists embarked on a new investigation of the cinema to reclaim, or concede, the power of interpreting movies. At stake was the role of the individual in a society more and more overwhelmed by capitalistic powers seeking to make a profit. I suggest that Dewey’s instrumental philosophy contributes to this investigation and helps carve out a space for the individual who can creatively work to better society through communication.

            I begin with a short history of relevant film theorists. This survey highlights the problem and some of the means that attempted to address it. Then, I move to Dewey’s ideas and draw from them the natural tendency for growth and the rise of appreciation and criticism. These, for Dewey, culminated in communication, and shaped lives not only of individuals but also of the whole community. At the conclusion, I find in Dewey a promise of hope in which also exists a susceptibility to domination. This balance of forces, taking the good with the bad, is perhaps the best we can hope for, and reinvigorates the need to question what we watch in the theater.

A Short History of Film Theory

The history of film theory indelibly revolves around Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and the Second World War. Before the mid 1930s, most film theory was concerned with trying stake out a place for cinema as the seventh art. Hugo Munsterberg, Jean Epstein, Germaine Dulac, Rudolph Arnheim, and even Sergei Eisenstein to a lesser extent, tried to justify the place of cinema as an art form and not a fad of the popular culture. Their justifications were not always similar; Munsterberg[3] saw the essence of cinema in the persistence of vision created by the mechanism of the photoplay, Eisenstein[4] argued for the view that cinematography was based in the collision of images (and thus, meanings) achieved through montage, Arnheim[5] saw the height of cinema in the silent, black and white films of the twenties and he lamented the "new laocoon" of the approaching advancements of sound and color film; and Epstein[6] and Dulac[7] placed the essence of cinema in its ability to capture and reproduce movement in space and time.

            In the middle1930s Walter Benjamin wrote, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."[8] In this essay, Benjamin argued that mechanical reproduction of art works, and furthermore of nature itself, erased the aura and prestige from art and made it not only possible for everyone to view art works, but also to create them. There was in both photography and cinematography an aide for the individual to create something unique, not subsumable to the fascistic system. The techniques, first of mechanically reproducing works and then representing them in a different setting "lead to a tremendous shattering of the tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crises and renewal of mankind."[9] He saw film, which combined photography (the aspect of space) with motion (the aspect of time), as the epitome of these two techniques. Thus, though Benjamin lamented the superficiality of most movies, he still retained some degree of hope in that films could be used for political and revolutionary ends. [10]

            Some eight years after Benjamin’s first publication of his article, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno published the essay, "The Culture Industry," in their book, Dialectic of Enlightenment.[11] The authors had emigrated from Frankfurt to Columbia University in 1933, fleeing Hitler’s Nazi regime. But, in a United States recovering from the depression and later initiating an economic build-up for wartime production, Horkheimer and Adorno saw the seeds of another fascist state like the one they had escaped. They wrote against a similar notion of a dominant system, as did Benjamin and Bataille[12] before him, but with much less optimism.

            From Benjamin’s article they borrowed three key ideas: the dominance of the system, the systemic creation of unfulfilled needs, and the passivity of the film audience. First, Benjamin claimed the "conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized with aversion."[13] Horkheimer and Adorno agreed with the first half of this statement, and saw in the arising of the truly new only a further instantiation of the dominant order, no matter how alternative it seemed. In their view, there was no longer "the slightest tension between opposite poles: these concordant extremes are dismally identical."[14] They did not perceive the possibility of creating something contrary to the ideological system of the culture, for every single thing was shaped by the culture industry.

            Second, they found in Benjamin a holdover from Romantic aesthetic theories – the notion of the incompleteness of art. Benjamin wrote, "One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later."[15] While he may have been specifically alluding to the fact of further technical advances bringing art closer to a perfect representation of reality (the fundamental idea grounding Andre Bazin’s essay "The Myth of Total Cinema" and his concept of Neorealism[16]), Horkheimer and Adorno incorporated this necessary lack of satisfaction into the dominant system itself. Everything created under the system left one needing something else; there was no absolute contentment to be found for a citizen of the culture industry. "The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises…[T]he diner must be satisfied with the menu."[17]

            Finally, Benjamin concluded the body of his essay with an ambiguous observation. He wrote, "The film makes the cult value [the aura] recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one."[18] The spectator in this position is both the subject of the culture industry’s ideology and an individual, creative person who can create a space of freedom from the dominance. Horkheimer and Adorno, however, following their understanding that any individual "who resists can only survive by fitting in,"[19] rejected the possibility of a positive philosophy under the culture industry. "The identity of the category," they wrote, "forbids that of individual cases."[20]

            It might seem as though we have gone far off track from the discussion of film theory, but in actuality these two essays are touchstones for recent theorists yet today. Every theorist must answer the question of the function of a critic in an ideologically rigid culture. And in the post-war world, with the rise of cinema as a worldwide force (and the memory of Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will to haunt us), this question became even more important.

            Immediately following the war, Andre Bazin was the most recognized film critic in France. Bazin heralded Neorealism as the proper method for appreciating films, calling it a phenomenological theory. "Whether in the service of the interests of an ideological thesis, of a moral idea, or of a dramatic action, realism subordinates what it borrows from reality to its transcendent needs. Neorealism knows only immanence. It is from appearance only, the simple appearance of beings and of the world, that it knows how to deduce the ideas that it unearths. It is a phenomenology."[21] Through a neorealist approach, Bazin undermined the notion of an overarching system and claimed that beyond the culturally dominant system, posited by previous theorists, there was nature as wholly immanent. The task was to learn to see it in the cinema.

            Bazin’s neorealism was the first of several approaches to film theory that sought to free the spectacle on the screen from the constraints of a dominant ideology. Perhaps following Foucault’s request in The Order of Things in 1966, wherein he claimed the task before us was to create counter-sciences to challenge the dominant order of the current age,[22] other film theorists began to inspect the ideological ideas structuring films.

            Jean Louis Baudry sought to uncover the means by which a spectator receives meanings and ideologies. He argued that the "spectator identifies less with what is represented, the spectacle itself, than with what stages the spectacle [and] this is exactly the function taken over by the camera as a sort of relay."[23] The camera is the tool, used by the filmmaker, which perpetuates the dominant ways of seeing.[24] Baudry’s apparatus theory highlighted one mechanism of the conveyance of habits of perception. The camera, ultimately in service to the producers and corporations backing a film, serves the dominant ideology. But, simply because meanings are conveyed through the lens of the camera Baudry cannot claim that the apparatus must be avoided at all costs, for in the right hands a camera could depict reality and critique the system. What he essentially illustrated was another area of our lives that we should not take for granted.

            Another institutional theorist, Laura Mulvey, built upon the ideological functions of the apparatus. She argued that the cinema constructs scopophilic and narcissistic ways of looking with which spectators identify.[25] Mulvey focused on the fact that women are subjected to two levels of objectification in the cinema, first, "as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and [second] as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen."[26] Consider Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Grace Kelly’s role as Lisa. In a majority of her scenes she was positioned as though posing for the camera (the audience), while at the same time she was posing for Jeff (James Stewart, whose character was fittingly, a photographer). This example reveals the objectification of women that Mulvey sought to analyze and, through her analysis, disrupt.

            The problems that the post-structuralist theorists explicated are serious and can only be overcome or dispersed by spectators who take an active interest in what they see. But, that there exists a possibility and method of overcoming or dispersing the dominant ideologies is precisely what I am trying to understand. How is it that one may begin to reclaim some of the ground so decisively conceded by the analysis of Horkheimer and Adorno?

The Human Telos

Possession and appreciation are as inseparable as experience and nature from the point of view of the live creature. But, as with all other loaded terms in Dewey’s corpus, in order to fully grasp them it is necessary to slowly pry them apart and see how they interact.

Appreciation implies simple enjoyment or satisfaction of the consequences of inquiry, but it also implies a deeper activity. The act of appreciation leads us into an active understanding of meanings, a desire for the fostering of criticism of objects and an impulsion towards communication of meanings to a greater community. Enjoyment, passing over into evaluation and understanding, is an accomplishment for the individual. The development of taste and a critical attitude is a bridge from personal viewpoint to the social arena. The sharing of meanings and attitudes is a social function.

In suggesting a progression from the individual to the social, as well as from unreflective experience to criticism, there is a telos of human activity. At first glance, Deweyan philosophy and teleology appear incompatible. The reason for this seeming incongruity is that, traditionally, teleology draws its force from a source claiming existence apart from nature, or at least hidden from human experience. For Dewey, nature itself exudes an impulse, a progressive development, which is embodied in all aspects of nature. The seeds of this naturalistic teleology are first sown in the basic behavior of things as they begin and end their functions.

It is in nature that we are first impressed with the connections of things, the dependency of things on each other. To institute a cause-effect relationship is not necessarily wrong, but it is not the only truth of the matter. The problem begins when one attitude becomes dominant at the expense of others that equally explain the functional relationships in nature.

The process of growth is a natural phenomenon. It is evident in the phases of childhood and adulthood, which are but parts of a continuous whole. When broken apart and viewed as earlier and later phases in which the latter depends upon the earlier, then some thinkers find the origins of a "mechanistic teleology." And when the later phase is viewed as a culmination of all the preceding phases, a "spiritualistic teleology" is achieved. Real existence, for Dewey, was the whole affair, "the history as just what it is." The acts of creating dualistic parts and, furthermore, constructing the means to rejoin them, are "arbitrary and gratuitous."[27]

As with nature, the individual displays this progress. Basic activities of individuals move us in a direction that can best be described as growth. Our starting point is immediate experience. Dewey wrote:

Possession and enjoyment of goods passes insensibly and inevitably into appraisal. First and immature experience is content simply to enjoy. But a brief course in experience enforces reflection; it requires but brief time to teach that some things sweet in having are bitter in aftertaste and in what they lead to. Primitive innocence does not last. Enjoyment ceases to be a datum and becomes a problem. As a problem, it implies intelligent inquiry into the conditions and consequences of a value-object; that is, criticism.[28]

            With this need for criticism comes the possession of meanings. Meanings are possessed to inform, and when a new meaning is achieved it freely associates with past meanings and experiences. A newly acquired meaning may solve only the problem at hand or bring to light a dozen related situations and give them a fresh perspective.[29] Meanings apply wherever they are applicable, wherever the potential exists for them to effect a change that enlivens an already possessed meaning.[30]

Two different examples illustrate the growth of meanings. First, consider a viewer of Alien (Ridley Scott, 1980) and its sequel, Aliens (James Cameron, 1984). The first movie is scary, not just because we rarely see the alien creature, but also because the alien is so far removed from anything we have seen or encountered in films up to that time. When we see the sequel, the horror of confronting the aliens is lessened because we are already familiar with their appearance and ferocity. The two movies reflect this assumption of knowledge since the second film is more likened to a war campaign, leaving behind the horror story of first contact that intensifies the original.

            Also consider the situation of two people watching Aliens, the sequel film. One has seen Alien (the original) and the other has not. The former viewer has more meanings to draw upon in understanding the narrative of the film. The latter viewer must struggle to reconcile the aliens’ "otherness" while also remaining involved in the story. And there is furthermore the situation of watching the two films in reverse order. This reversal decreases the suspense of facing an unknown creature that grounds the original film.

            Although we may debate about the reality of the screen image, the fact that the image on the screen affects viewers is beyond reproach. We do not merely observe films, German film theorist Sigfried Kracauer noted, but we "feel stimulated to weave what they are telling us into contexts that bear on the whole of our existence."[31] Even though we may assume the illusion on the screen, we incorporate its meanings into our selves. Just as words spoken by a friend, dialogue in a film can be taken to heart, allowed to mingle with our ideas and change or solidify our assumptions of the world beyond the movie theater. Of course, meanings cannot be limited to the soundtrack of the film, every image and cinematic technique shape the various meanings of a movie as well.

            Our lives are continually expanding as meanings are taken in through further acts of inquiry. This expansion is a natural process. We must look to our experience as the source and answer to our quest for meaning. We inquire to resolve problems, the resolution arriving in the form of meanings suggesting relationships in experience that can smooth out the disruptions in experience. The result of continued inquiry was described by Dewey as a "disciplined mind."[32] The sum of this growth in inquiry, the application of the instrumental method, is intelligence, and thus it is our goal.

            Intelligence is the application of inquiry to "goods of belief, appreciation and conduct" for the purpose of more free and secure goods. It is self-promoting. Its aim is the conversion of "assent and assertion into free communication of shareable meanings, turning feeling into ordered and liberal sense," in effect discerning the vague and undefined by means of knowing and understanding. Because people aspire towards intelligence, the sum and means of the process of inquiry, it is the "reasonable object of our deepest faith and loyalty, the stay and support of all reasonable hopes."[33] Dewey elsewhere described the fostering of intelligence as "the supreme task set to human beings by the incidents of experience."[34]

            The human telos is the desire to possess a system of meanings that continues to grow and enrich further experiences. What the individual aims to develop are habits of action that effect growth and development of experience, habits that do not lead to decay and stagnation in life.

Deweyan Instrumentalism and Criticism

            As experience insensibly passes into appraisal, we may begin to foresee that appraisal is criticism in its unrefined and uneducated stage. The development of the method of inquiry serves to bring the individual into a state of critical experience, intelligent and artistic use of the critical method. The beginning of criticism, as with any inquiry, is a question. Criticism thus seeks to uncover the value of a situation. It is a questioning of the worth of an object or event so as to "modify our sense of it by even a passing estimate of its probable future."[35]

            When we consider criticism of a film, the inquiry begins with the film and ends with a meaning of the film we convey to others. Thus, the end-in-view is a position or opinion that is justified through an understanding of the particular history of the critic. As soon as we recognize that we must answer a query as to the quality or worth of a film, we realize the need to form a meaning. Every step of the instrumental method is infected with the end-in-view.

Criticism was no different than any other inquiry for Dewey. An individual suspends judgment to test a sensation as to its implications. But there is another sense in which this inquiry is far-sighted. When we recognize that the results of inquiry will effectively change our lives then we begin to acknowledge the openness with which we must assume meanings.

            Still, in one sense we desire habitual meanings, a repetition of the same to help our daily lives flow more smoothly. In another sense we desire a diverse population of things that infuses our lives with vitality and precariousness. This latter attitude requires an open store of meanings such that the "springs of thinking will be clear and ever-flowing."[36] Of the former issue we find a more pressing concern.

            Developing the method of inquiry to freely accept the new and the fresh was certainly a desire and aim of Dewey’s, but the difficulty in cultivating taste is more poignantly encountered with repeated experiences of the same object. This repetition is precisely the state of affairs that Horkheimer and Adorno envisioned. It is the second visit to the museum, concert or movie theater that distinguishes good habits of perception from bad ones. For Dewey, only "cultivated taste" was "capable of prolonged appreciation of the same object." It had the ability to continually discern in objects "new meanings to be perceived and enjoyed."[37] Dewey believed the critic’s task was "the reeducation of perception of works of art; it is an auxiliary in the process, a difficult process, of learning to see and hear."[38]

            If the "characteristic human need is for possession and appreciation of the meaning of things," then it seems clear that Dewey’s instrumentalism and the critical attitude it affords us can succeed in clearing some small halo of individuality to fend off the culture industry. Of course, for Dewey, the matter never stopped with the individual. The education of perceptual habits, learning how to criticize film, is a public endeavor for the culture industry affects everyone. Communication was, for Dewey, the "process of creating participation, of making common what had been isolated and singular." Dewey’s instrumental method aimed at yielding a meaning in isolation and reintroducing it into the situation and the community. The act of making common what is personal is the basic function of communication. Although we "associate in many ways, the only form of association that is truly human, is the participation in meanings and goods that is effected by communication."[39]


            The continuing project is to understand how meanings "are both assigned and created," as Mayne suggested at the beginning of this essay. We can now place this project in clearer terms. Meanings are assigned to us by the culture industry whenever we take them for granted. Meanings are created by the individual and injected into society through communication. Horkheimer and Adorno argued that any individual creation was still a product of the culture industry, and only perpetuated our domination. Individuality, originality, served the cultural ideology that was determined by others.

            Dewey also believed that the individual was inseparable from the community, and in this fact laid both the problem and solution. The union of experience and nature, of culture and nature,[40] in Dewey’s work a susceptibility to the dangers articulated by Horkheimer and Adorno. The ability to shape and control the landscape of meanings allows for the rise of totalitarianism. But, there is a concomitant individual ability to live within an environment and still shirk dominant ideologies, to remain an individual over and against oppression. A film theory that recognizes this tenuous situation takes seriously the challenge of educating audiences seeking absent minded entertainment. Dewey’s philosophy, in which aesthetic experience is at the core of his notion of what experience is, significantly contributes to the project of film theory. The task before us is not just to construct an instrumental film theory, but also to watch movies with our eyes wide open and discuss what we see.

[1] John Dewey, Experience and Nature, The Later Works of John Dewey, 1924-1953, Volume 1: 1925, Edited by Jo Ann Boydston, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1988, (Hereafter EN), p. 272.

[2] Judith Mayne, Cinema and Spectatorship, Routledge, London and New York, 1993, p. 81.

[3] Hugo Munsterberg, The Film: A Psychological Study, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1970.

[4] Sergei Eisenstein, "The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram", Film Form, Edited and translated by Jay Leda, Harcourt Brace & Co., San Diego, New York, London, 1977, p. 28-44.

[5] Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1971(1938).

[6] Jean Epstein, "The Essence of Cinema", Edited and translated by Stuart Liebman, Source unknown, 1923, p. 25-6.

[7] Germaine Dulac, "Aesthetics, Obstacles, Integral Cinegraphie", Framework, Translated by Stuart Liebman, 1926 (English 1982), p. 389-397.

[8] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Illuminations, Edited by Hannah Arendt, Schocken Books, New York, 1968, p. 217-252.

[9] Benjamin, p. 221.

[10] Benjamin, p. 231.

[11] Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception", Dialectic of Enlightenment, Continuum, New York, 1997 (1944), p. 120-167.

[12] Georges Bataille, "The Psychological Structure of Fascism", The Bataille Reader, Edited by Fred Bottery and Scott Wilson, Blackwell, Oxford, 1997, p. 122-146.

[13] Benjamin, p. 234.

[14] Horkheimer and Adorno, p. 130.

[15] Benjamin, p. 237.

[16] Andre Bazin, "The Myth of Total Cinema", What is Cinema? Volume 1, Translated by Hugh Gray, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1967, p. 17-22.

[17] Horkheimer and Adorno, p. 139.

[18] Benjamin, p. 240-241.

[19] Horkheimer and Adorno, p. 132.

[20] Horkheimer and Adorno, p. 145. In the same way that Plato’s Forms prohibited him from considering individuals to be in any sense real, Horkheimer and Adorno argued that the dominance of the culture industry precluded any individuation in society. However, it is noted that for Plato the Forms were a positive source of apparent individuation, whereas for Horkheimer and Adorno the illusion of individuation from the culture industry was an entirely negative relationship.

[21] Andre Bazin, "De Sica: Metteur en Scene", What is Cinema? Volume 2, Translated by Hugh Gray, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1971, p. 61-79.

[22] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, Vintage Books, New York, 1994 (1966), p. 342. I also want to make clear the point that Foucault and Bazin wouldn’t have considered themselves to be doing the same project, for Foucault was quite critical of the phenomenological endeavor, but they were both trying to solve the problem fascism presented to their fields of study.

[23] Jean-Louis Baudry, "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus", Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, Edited by Philip Rosen, Columbia University Press, New York, 1986, p. 295.

[24] Baudry further likened the movie theater to Plato’s cave, attempting to display the illusory nature of any meanings the spectator may claim to possess or create in conjunction with the film.

[25] Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, Edited by Philip Rosen, Columbia University Press, New York, 1986, p. 202.

[26] Mulvey, p. 203.

[27] EN p. 210.

[28] EN p. 298.

[29] EN p. 148.

[30] EN p. 134.

[31] Sigfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1997 (1960), p. 308.

[32] John Dewey, How We Think, The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899-1924, Volume 6: 1910-1911, Edited by Jo Ann Boydston, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1988, p. 177-356, p. 229.

[33] EN p. 325.

[34] John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty, The Later Works of John Dewey, 1924-1953, Volume 4:1929, Edited by Jo Ann Boydston, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1988, p. 209.

[35] EN p. 299.

[36] John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty, p.111.

[37] EN p. 299.

[38] John Dewey, Art as Experience, The Later Works of John Dewey, 1924-1953, Volume 10: 1932, Edited by Jo Ann Boydston, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1988, p. 328.

[39] AE p. 248-9.

[40] EN p. 361. In this unfinished, revised introduction to Experience and Nature, Dewey discussed his problems with the use of the term ‘experience’ to convey what he meant. He suggested that if he were to do it again, he would have used ‘culture’ instead, though that word also gave rise to problematic connotations.