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Presence of Absence


Presence of Absence


Christine Jakobson

Does cinema represent or create the world? Christine Jakobson revisits Jean-Luc Godard's famous quote that Robert Bresson's film Au Hasard Balthazar is 'the world in an hour and a half', turning to Stanley Cavell, Martin Heidegger and Mikel Dufrenne to ask: what is the world of a film for?

Director Jean-Luc Godard once called Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) ‘the world in an hour and a half’, which, even though suggesting how dense Bresson’s elliptical narrative about a donkey’s life and death is, it nonetheless instils an uncertainty of what exactly Godard alluded to when he spoke of ‘the world’.

As for our everyday use of the word – it might seem so immediate and mundane that it has become somewhat inconspicuous. Philosophy often consists in the asking of questions that are so elementary that their answers must be evident, but when we actually attempt to articulate our apparent knowledge, we find ourselves unable to say anything adequate at all. Seeking some preliminary advice from the dictionary, ‘the world’ in defined two senses:

(1) the earth, together with all of its countries, peoples, and natural features

(2) a part or aspect of human life or of the natural features of the earth

A plurality of the word is evident, as when we refer to the English-speaking world (region), the ancient world (time period), the animal world (a group), or when we speak of the physical world (field of studies) such as science, where the primary principle is that of unification, the desire to absorb all things under the conditions of objectivity.

But as I neither intend to dictate how the word should be used nor have a concise clarification myself, my central aim is to introduce the questions, which relate to the world and to the world as an artistic object. Therefore, I would like to address the following pair of questions:

‘What is the world of a film made of?’ and ‘What is the world of a film for?, in order to inquire into the conceptual components, as well as the purpose of the world. I will employ ontological and phenomenological theories by Stanley Cavell, Martin Heidegger and Mikel Dufrenne, in order to look at the inherent interrelation of absence and presence of ‘the world’ & ‘the earth’, as well as of subjectivity and objectivity, proposing a composition of dialectical unity in the world of an aesthetic object.



We have seen thus far, and as Ludwig Wittgenstein advocates in his Tractatus, ‘the world is everything that is the case’, the world seems to be routinely defined by means of inclusion, as that, which is present and sometimes even as that which might exist, as in theories of multiple worlds, when in fact I would like us to turn our attention to that, which is excluded from the notion of a world, or at least to that, which is not present.

Heidegger’s preliminary definition of the term 'world' is as well expressed in terms of a negative characterization. According to him:

(1) the world is neither the totality of things (in the ontic sense)

(2) nor is it the Being of that totality (Nature in the ontological sense)

Neither definition approaches the 'phenomenon' of the world, since the unity or totality of the world always escapes our perception or even conception of it.

Presence is ordinarily understood as being and its taxonomical opposite of absence defined in terms of non-being. Whereas absence is that, which can be doubted, due to its ambivalent nature, presence takes not only on the notion of existence, that which is knowable or certain, but even becomes the very evidence of existence. Presence appears to be therefore a necessity, not only in a metaphysical sense, forming the foundation of life, but once turning to the arts, comes to constitute as the core of cinema.

The traditional focus in film studies attests to this preoccupation with presence, as defined by the existence of the images and that, which is present in the frame. But cinema is essentially linked to the duality of absence and presence. Film is always and already, and by its very definition, absent, representing life while that life no longer exists. It appears that in cinema, as in life, absence must be mediated by presence, in order to be represented and perceived.

The essential quality of cinema is that in every film the borders of a frame unite as much as they separate, since something must always be invisible, in order for something to be visible: voids and apertures form a necessity in cinema and creation. This inextricable link between off-screen and on-screen space highlights one elementary truth in cinema, which seems to be that ‘exhibition always implies concealment’ (Cassetti 2008: 46).

As Stanley Cavell has famously argued in The World Viewed (1971), cinema has certainly a distinctive relation to the world. His analysis of the antagonism between the world of painting and the world of cinema is captivating both in its clearness and in its complexity:

The world of painting is not continuous with the world of its frame; at its frame, a world finds its limits. We might say: a painting is a world; a photograph is of a world. What happens in a photograph is that it comes to an end. A photograph is cropped, not necessarily by a paper cutter or by masking but by the camera itself…. When a photograph is cropped, the rest of the world is cut out. The implied presence of the rest of the world, and its explicit rejection, are as essential in experience of the photograph as what it represents (p.24).

Cavell’s concentration on the image, which documents the existence of the world, is predominantly drawn from the intricate interplay between absence and presence in the film frame and is established to encapsulate the essence of cinema. Nonetheless, absences must be made perceivable, in order to be recognized as such, pointing towards a circularity and dialectical relation between the two different, yet interrelated onto-epistemological states of absence and presence. Therefore, it is an interplay of discourses, marked by a heterogeneous and dynamic exchange, refuting any homogeneous sense of both modalities.

The perceived unity manifests itself both in what it integrates and in what it excludes, in the correlation between concealing and disclosing, reducing and increasing the spatial dimensions of a film-world, which corroborates the openness of an aesthetic world, a potentiality, which could not be exhausted by any actualization. It discloses in a fading light and a fleeting gaze an immeasurable aspect of the world – acknowledging and allowing a part of the world to reveal itself. 



Even though Martin Heidegger has written little to nothing about cinema itself, his The Origin of the Work of Art (1935) can nonetheless provide some crucial concepts for our present purpose, since, for Heidegger, the essence of art lies in its ability to reveal the ‘actual nature’ or ‘Being’ of things and therefore serves to unveil ‘the truth of what is’ in the ‘fixity’ of a confined and aesthetic work. Proposing an ontological argument about artworks, he set his scrutiny of aesthetics against the background of his general metaphysics and proposed that an artwork can ‘disclose the world’.

For this purpose, Heidegger distinguishes between two concepts: the world, which a work of art brings forth, and the earth, which is our world, as we use it in everyday language. Now in Heiddegerian terminology, these terms are defined as follows:

(1) the earth is the concealing and self-enclosing realm, whereas

(2) the world is the open and unhidden realm

The world serves, according to Heidegger, to open the hiddenness of the earth, while the earth serves at the same time to ground and protect the transcendent, intangible realm of the world. The earth tries to draw the world into itself, while the world tries to surmount the hidden earth. Heidegger proposes that the ‘world’ is revealing the unintelligibility of the ‘earth’ and therefore concedes its dependence on the ‘earth’. Through the force of this struggle, each element attempts to establish its own essence within the work, while bringing into existence the entity of the work of art. Through this dialectical relation the world and the earth serve to disclose ‘the truth of what is’ in the artwork. The existence of truth is therefore a product of this continuous conflict between veiling and revealing. This notion is reminiscent of our earlier observation about absence and presence, since the concealment of the ‘earth’ is the necessary prerequisite for the disclosure of the world.

In short, the world could be understood as the soul of the earth, which in return is its body. This unifying relationship renders them inseparable and it is only in conjunction that they constitute an artwork, through whose reciprocity it gains infinite breadth and depth. And it is due to this condition that we can elucidate a work of art in terms of what it contains and of what it omits.

The aesthetic object can therefore be understood as attesting to the world, rather than creating a world, or in other words as world-unfolding, rather than world-forming, since the distinctive role of an artwork lies in disclosing the worldhood of the world and earthiness of the earth, while, not merely, but simultaneously disclosing a specific world and a specific earth. In other words, yet again, an artwork shows ‘a world’ as an instance of ‘the world’ concomitantly.



After having shown that art as a medium is situated within and yet outside of the world and the earth, I will now turn to art as an apparatus to augment the viewer’s relation to the world. This last argument will be based on Dufrenne's Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (1953, 1973), which will help to secure the notion of ‘world’ as central to a phenomenological film aesthetic. Dufrenne argues for a transcendence that may occur in the intersection of two intentionalities, namely through the reciprocal contact between a work’s expressiveness and the viewer’s consciousness, which, when synthesized, elucidates ‘the real’.

For Dufrenne, the aesthetic object does not only have significance through representation, but is capable of expression, which in turn arouses an impression in the perceiver. Therefore, the ‘world’ is something more than the sum of representational parts, which manifests a certain quality of the artwork. 

The principle of unity emerges for Dufrenne through the ‘perceived unity of the appearance as rigorously composed and the felt unity of a world represented by the appearance or, rather, emanating from it in such a way that what is represented itself signifies totality and is converted into a world’ (p.177). Dufrenne nonetheless argues that the source of unity, which expresses and shapes the world, is the subjective consciousness of the artist, especially since an objective world is unspecifiable. Trying to describe the totality of the world always throws oneself, whether in personal or field-specific terms, back to subjective representations, since one must always return to one’s own knowledge – gained from my one’s own world. ‘It is in the subjective world, then, that we must seek the root of the notion of the world and the fundamental relation of the world to a subjectivity – a subjectivity which is not a pure transcendental subjectivity, but precisely a subjectivity that defines itself by its relation to a world through the style of its being in the world’ (p.193).

This question concerning style propels one to think of auteur theory, as it has often been understood that the director is the central creator of and the structural subjectivity behind a film. Coming back to Bresson, his signature style can be stipulated as a way of evoking a world through a variation of unique expressions or the unity of his worldview or Weltanschaung. His idiosyncratic style is defined by his spiritual body of work, which was famously called by Paul Schrader ‘transcendental’, alongside the oeuvre of Yasujiro Ozu and Carl Dreyer. Bresson’s austere perfectionism is characterized through his abolishment of professional actors, replacing them with the rigid performances of his ‘models’ and his rejection of ornamental camera work in favour of meticulous precision.

This unmitigated unity brings to mind Heidegger’s emphasis that a subject cannot be reduced to mere subjectivity. He argues that ‘the world does not become a being within the sphere of the subjective’ (p.195), but that by producing the world ‘before itself,’ the subject, and in line with Dufrenne the viewer as well, recognizes his belonging to a world. The fact that the subject perceives himself bound to a world, while evoking an objective conception of the world as the centre of all phenomena independent of its own subjectivity, does nonetheless not eliminate the subjective world for the sake of an objective world, which so often is attempted to be established. From this follows that the aesthetic object is simultaneously a being in the world and an entity opening up a world.


Despite the indexical nature of cinematic representation, the world of a film has an aesthetic, ontological and phenomenological significance beyond mere resemblance. With its concealing being, it is a medium oscillating between the earth and the viewer. The present analysis has assessed the aesthetic object, in order to overcome the dichotomies of absence and presence, of world and earth and of subject and object, to affirm cinematic worlds as an aesthetic whole of a finite yet unlimited nature. With the innumerable wealth of images cut out from the world, a director does not so much represent a pre-existing world as to evoke a world re-created by him.

As I have earlier alluded to science, I have strived to show unity as a primary principle of a world, but in contrast to science, not through the absorption of all things under the conditions of objectivity, but through the antagonism of all spheres under the condition of subjectivity as world-evoking.

The confusion between the two senses of the term ‘world’ is caused by the fact that the word is derived, at least in everyday language, from the assumption that the world is a totality of all given entities, yet alternatively used for an individual involvement as well. Hence, I would propose to reject the first sense of the definition [for the purpose of cinematic worlds], namely ‘the earth, together with all of its countries, peoples, and natural features’, since this presupposes an impossible phenomenological objectivity and totality. From this follows that the second part of the definition ‘a part or aspect of human life or of the natural features of the earth’, is phenomenologically more suitable, since the perception of the subjective world has a genuine correlation to the conception of the earth.

But maybe all this article has amounted to is a tautological answer to the question ‘What is the world of a film made of?’, since my answer would be that ‘the world is made of a world’. But given that the infinite nature of space and time always escapes us in its entirety, it is important, as we have observed in line with Cavell, to understand the dialectical interplay between absence and presence to form the wider framework into which Heidegger’s reciprocal relation between the world, as created by an artwork, and the actual world, or ‘the earth’, corresponds to.

In order to answer my second question: ‘What is the world of a film for?, I have introduced Dufrenne’s approach to aesthetic objects, which defies the traditional subject/object dichotomy, by producing an indispensable interaction between the expressiveness of an aesthetic object and the viewer’s subjective consciousness, which, when in unity, gives rise to a deeper level of contact with one’s own world and the earth, into which we are always and already thrown.

This brings me back to Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, which shows the totality of a life from beginning to end. It is a pinnacle of cinematic experience, since its peculiar expressive character forces the viewer to confront himself as a subject, not as belonging to a specific region, or time or group, but to penetrate the very depths of what it means to be human in this interrelated world – with all its beauty and agony, in all its despair and hope.

Christine is founder and editor at four by three magazine.