Mikael Pettersson: "Sound and Vision, Signifying Nothing"

The Higher Seminar in Aesthetics

Mikael Pettersson, Stockholm University: "Sound and Vision, Signifying Nothing"

In Andy Warhol’s film Empire (1964), which consists of more than eight hours of footage of the Empire State Building, nothing much happens. Indeed, the experience of looking at some ‘passages’ of the film would even seem to be indistinguishable from the experience of seeing a still photograph of the building. However, the film looks still in a way that a comparable ‘still photograph’ arguably would not. Similarly, the silence in films from the period after sound film was invented—e.g. in Bergman’s Tystnaden (1963), or Scorsese’s Silence (2016)—somehow ‘sounds’ more silent than the absence of sound in films from the silent era.

Philosophers of film have been puzzled about the apparent fact that we see movement in film, and the main issue has been whether the movement we seem to see is real or merely apparent. But our seeing of stillness in film would seem to be just as puzzling, though for different reasons. Stillness is the absence of movement, but can one really see absences? And, similarly, if there is no sound of silence, how can we hear it in Bergman’s film? And again, why does Empire look ‘still’ in a way that a photo of the building does not? In the talk I will explore various ways to answer these questions.