By Thomas Meagher
“The aesthetic moment is, so to speak, after the fact.”
Losing Ground (1982) is a film about a black female philosophy professor. It is among the first feature-length fiction films directed by a black woman, in this case Kathleen Collins, who also wrote the screenplay. For many readers of this blog, this information will suffice to make you want to see this film, which, aside from screening at some festivals shortly after its completion, never received distribution until being restored and released in 2015. But Losing Ground is no mere curiosity or historical document: it is a superb reflection on the existential condition of intellectuals in a human world, and it is at once both a striking aesthetic accomplishment and a provocative examination of the pitfalls and potential of aesthetic modes of valuing.
The film begins with our protagonist, Sara Rogers, discussing the notion of absurdity. Existentialism, she contends, was a reaction to the upheaval of war, a stimulus to a crisis in meaning. We are left to wonder the extent to which her students, mostly black men, sense the apparent subtext—that existential reflection on the absurd might equally be a reaction to anti-black racism and the “paradigm of war” (to use decolonial theorist Nelson Maldonado-Torres’s phrase from his book Against War) of which it is a part.
Some of the students peer forward with renewed attention, one simply keeps bopping along to the music in his earbuds, and one dazed student seems either to have awakened metaphorically in realization or to have simply literally awakened from his in-class sleep.
One of these students, a young black man, approaches after class, reporting that he has read the book on the gay playwright and novelist Jean Genet that Sara recommended; they both concur that the text’s illumination of social exclusion is as applicable to race as to sexuality. “There are books that can make a difference in a life,” she says. The student gazes at her in awe.
“You’re terrific,” he says, “So alive and… terrific.” He gazes on, as if spellbound. “Your husband appreciates you?” She’s taken aback by the question, and her confused reaction breaks his spell. He awkwardly closes the conversation and departs.
We cut to Sara’s home, later, where we meet her husband, Victor. Victor has big news: he’s sold a painting to a museum’s permanent collection.
“I am a genuine success! Your husband is a genuine black success,” he says, and the two laugh happily.
Victor views the moment as a turning point in his career; he’s ready to move on to new challenges, to working with a new style. He proposes the two adjourn to a summer rental upstate to stimulate new inspirations. Sara is reluctant; she needs to be close to a library to pursue her research.
Back at Sara’s office, she counsels another student, a young white woman who likes philosophy and loves Sara’s teaching but hates logic. Sara, who seems as passionate about the logical positivists as she is about existentialism, is kind but unsympathetic. The young woman praises Sara’s classes and then Sara the person:
“You’re so bright and lively. A real inspiration,” she says, adoration saturating her face. She reaches her hand out for a shake, which she maintains a few beats too long as she continues: “And lucky, with a husband and all…”
Sara is perplexed again and, when the student walks out, wonders, “What is this thing they’ve all got about my having a husband?”
Another student enters, an aspiring filmmaker named George; he frames her in a simulated iris effect and declares she’d be perfect as an actress in his thesis film. Sara laughs, finding the idea ridiculous yet overcome with flattery. George persists, comparing her to Pearl McCormack and Dorothy Dandridge; she laughs until he reluctantly leaves.
Victor has gone off to scout rental houses, but it appears he’s less concerned with discovering a scenic landscape than with finding a young woman to be his muse. Back at their apartment, he’s standoffish; when Sara asks if the area upstate has any decent library, he suggests she’ll simply have to go without her buddies Kant and Hegel. Sara senses the shift in Victor’s attitude, which we sense is not so much novel as much as it is a recurrence of earlier flashpoints in their relationship. She bemoans that what she has to offer is not what Victor is looking for, wondering aloud if things would be different if she were an artist or actress.
“Nothing I do leads to ecstasy,” she laments.
Sara relents and the two head upstate. Victor reflects that his now-completed artistic period was overly influenced by the abstract work of his friend, Carlos; he’s ready to move on to representing the beauty of something real. Yet, when Sara models for him, he decries portraiture as dishonest and corrupting. This, though, seems to be more about his disdain for Sara as model than out of a resolute aesthetic judgment, for when he finds a young Puerto Rican woman to be his new model, he confidently tells Carlos that he’s come to reject the abstract whole-heartedly.
As the relationship between Victor and this model develops, we begin to sense a simple meaning for the film’s title: Sara is losing ground in her marriage. But the film takes this scenario in a much richer direction, and it is not long before it is clear that the loss of ground may have a quite different significance. These events are portended by Sara’s meeting Duke, an out of work actor (portrayed by Duane Jones, who played the lead in Night of the Living Dead) who is drawn to the beauty of Sara’s extreme degree of focus while reading in the library, and by her subsequent decision to participate in George’s film project. These, in turn, bring her also to spend more time with her mother, an actress who exudes passion. Sara wonders aloud how she, a sober intellectual, could be her mother’s offspring; her cinematic turn, though, suggests that she may be more like her mother than she had thought.
I will leave the rest for the reader to discover as a viewer. The film is not without flaws; there are many elements that betray the obvious budgetary constraints under which it was made, which is often evident in the sound quality. The performances tend to be rather hit or miss, owing, I imagine, both to the lack of time available to reach an ideal take and to the cast’s general lack of film experience.
Yet this is no dry and joyless work of didactic art to be appreciated only for its historical or philosophical significance. While Seret Scott’s performance as Sara is uneven, there are some moments when it is simply transcendent. These qualities are buoyed by the film’s impressive sense of color and playful mise-en-scène. Inventive camera movements abound, and one senses the director’s joy in making her debut feature. There are, for instance, a bevy of interesting tracking shots, which serve a thematic purpose, inviting reflection on the relationship between Sara and the array of men who gaze at her.
George and Duke, a director and an actor, are shown to be capable of an aesthetic appreciation of Sara that Victor, the painter, has lost or perhaps lacked all along. This is mirrored in the way that Sara seems at times almost locked in place by static shots but comes alive through a moving, subjective camera; she is not one, in short, to be appreciated as still life.
Losing Ground would be a natural fit alongside such mainstays of film studies curriculum as John Cassavetes’ Shadows, Charles Burnette’s Killer of Sheep, and the early films of Spike Lee—all exemplary works of independent cinema for which anti-black racism informs the dramatic events and the filmic perspective without lapsing into the tropes of the race melodrama.
Sara’s philosophical research, we learn, concerns aesthetic experience, taking ecstasy as her point of entrée, and the film is unusually strong in establishing a dialectic between what Sara the philosopher has to say and the dramaturgic elements that surround her without ever being on-the-nose. Sara’s thesis, we learn, is “that the religious boundaries around ecstasy are too narrow. That if, as the Christians define it, ecstasy is an immediate apprehension of the divine, then the divine is energy, amorphous energy.” Artists, she says, thus have a routine relationship with ecstasy.
Yet her relationship with Victor dramatizes a problem for the artistic temperament: what if the artist’s routine means he or she becomes accustomed to aspects of the divine and, hence, fails to apprehend that which is present?
By the time the film begins, Victor’s appreciation of Sara and the life they share presumably has diminished from an earlier period. He is, thus, set afoot on a quest for new ecstasies. Victor’s actions seem to reflect the path prescribed by a voice we hear on the radio as he paints, who says:
“The black artist must have absolute freedom to interpret his experience both stylistically and in every other manner, as with any other art. No demand can be considered of him appropriate other than the one simple, clear mandate that he interpret that which is meaningful to him in a meaningful way.”
Victor thus is on a project of nullifying those demands that he sees as vitiating his artistic project, pursuing a creative license that pertains not merely to what and how he paints but also to how he lives his life. The theme of the artist struggling with the urge to “follow his muse” is not new here (and use of the gendered “his” here is intentional), but the contrast here of the demands on the black artist with the demands on the black philosopher, in both cases left subtextual, adds depth to the theme. If the artist is one who is licensed to pursue the expression of meaning, then the artistic temperament is one that is responsible for vanquishing its responsibilities. The artist must break rules, and the imperative is as much existential as it is aesthetic.
What, then, of the philosopher?
The philosopher is bound by the demands of reason in a way that the artist is not. For instance, philosophy as an activity of reason is bound by a responsibility to evidence and to giving due regard to the evidentiality of evidence. The artist, though, may take that which is evident as a point of departure: art may be trans-evidential. In both cases, there is a faculty of imagination that allows one to entertain that which is not evident. The artist can dwell exclusively in this province of that which transcends evidentiality, but the philosopher ultimately must bring what is learned in the realm of imagination back to a realm constrained by evidence; for the philosopher to imagine that which isn’t evident is a project to discover that which is not yet evident. This is one reason why logic is central to the philosophical project: logic implies a critical apprehension of whether there is sufficient evidential support for inference. The artist, by contrast, can bypass inference in favor of mere association.
The fact that Victor is the artist and Sara the philosopher means that the feminist themes reverberating through these matters are brought front and center in Losing Ground. The artist is one who constructs a world; art goes from here to there in the mode of what Hannah Arendt calls “work.” The philosopher, however, may be constrained by burdens that have the character of what Arendt terms “labor,” which is cyclical and reproductive. Where the artist builds, the philosopher is often constrained merely to describe; where the artist may be bold, the philosopher faces responsibility to clarify, to use argument to sort out misunderstandings that endlessly recur. Art is generally the province of the public, whereas philosophy more often toils in the private province of schools. Modern modes of misogyny, as well as some modes found in antiquity like those described and advocated by Aristotle, are typically manifest in part through a systematic devaluation of labor vis-à-vis work, where women and slaves, as laborers, are regarded as fungible whereas the artisan is often regarded as unique and irreplaceable.
At their summer rental, we see Sara reading Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, which, interpreted in Arendtian terms, concerns the question of what human beings ought to want once automation has rendered the bulk of labor irrelevant; what should we work on, unburdened from the demands of labor?
Angela Davis expanded on this question in Women, Race, and Class. She raised the question of whether the automation of labor could play a dialectical role in the liberation of women and people of color. Yet it can be argued that the subsequent decades have not borne out the issue in the way that the theses of Marcuse and Davis may have required. Domestic laborers are a burgeoning global commodity and the economy of the United States and other leading economic powers are increasingly oriented toward service sectors. Earlier waves of feminist fights for women’s inclusion in the domain of “work” may have involved a calamitous abandonment of the project of valorizing domestic labor. A parallel situation confronts philosophy, for the philosopher is often one who must labor in the face of a social world that values work at the expense of labor. This is much of what is at issue, for instance, in debates around scientism; many philosophers take science as embodying the ideal form of intellectual activity, with the neurotic consequence that they feel the need to make their work more scientific and less philosophical.
One pitfall of taking science, or the domain of “work” in general, as the model of philosophical activity is that it may ultimately require that the philosopher take on an aesthetic appreciation of science rather than one grounded in reason. That is to say, if the scientist is the model, then the philosopher is given the task of imitation: the philosopher’s legitimacy requires that she or he look like the scientist. The philosopher comes to see his or her value in terms of how much she or he is recognized by those who “work.” Worse still if the philosopher adopts a neurotic standpoint in comparison to the entrepreneur, the industrialist, or, as Marco Rubio would have it, the welder.
The reader may here protest that this thematic reading of philosophy as “labor” and the potential of its neurotic relation to “work” is off the mark. It is true that philosophers do work; philosophers undertake productive tasks, they create, they write. Yet philosophy as a vocation may require commitments to the reproductive tasks of preparing students critically to encounter adult life, as well as cultivating subsequent generations of philosophers. And while philosophical research is work, its function is often cyclical: societies, institutions, scientists and artists, in fulfilling their own generational missions to produce anew, often replicate perennial errors.
Yet these errors are, in their own ways, productive; they are the consequence of a passion to build a human world. What is productive may, however, also be destructive, and passionate work may require the balance brought by the philosopher’s labor of love. Philosophy as love is the sort of care without which a society could not nourish and grow subsequent generations of knowledge. This does not imply that the philosopher ought not do work, that the philosopher should only labor—for, among other reasons, any system that reduces a human being to only labor is dehumanizing. But the effort to collapse philosophy into a form of work begets decadent forms of valuing, in which one finds oneself guided by a market and wherein nobody is willing to take responsibility for what it is that the market values.
Sara confronts an iteration of just this crisis: she seeks to regain ground in the struggle for recognition from Victor, the artist, the one who “works.” If only, she bemoans, she herself could be a source of ecstasy! Yet if Victor no longer values Sara—if she no longer meets his aesthetic criteria of value—then she may simply be barking up the wrong tree.
Victor’s aesthetic ecstasy seems to be reserved for Celia, the Puerto Rican woman he pursues to model for him. We see that Sara, however, is a clear source of ecstasy for someone else: namely, her students. To youth, philosophy often has an intoxicating effect, and we see Sara’s students falling in love. As tends to be the case in youth, there is confusion about whether one is falling for the person who is the object of one’s affection or whether one is rather falling for that which that person represents, or, indeed, falling for the world to which the object of one’s affection serves as a guide or introduction.
It can be said that Sara’s students ask if her husband appreciates her because they are too young to understand whether they desire Sara or whether they desire to be like Sara—do they want Sara to be unhappy in marriage so they can offer themselves as alternative partners, or do they want Sara to be happy in marriage because one who brings so much love to the world ought to receive love in kind?
Sara’s concern that she is no source of ecstasy is simply misplaced; the ecstasy is present in her students’ faces, for whom she is neither cold nor abstract but rather alive, real, and thrilling.
If Victor will only appreciate Sara as the embodiment of reason and the abstract, she may simply need to find those who will value her as the full human being that she is. Victor teases Sara for claiming she could be another Dorothy Dandridge; for Victor, her value is locked into the cold and abstract. But Duke and George, while valuing her intellectual presence, are open and inviting of her artistic turn. Indeed, whereas Victor apprehends Sara through that which she aesthetically lacks, Duke and George are each aesthetically drawn by the beauty of seeing Sara absorbed in philosophical contemplation. It is her intellect as a situated, breathing engagement with the world that entices them. And, indeed, their enticement does not go the boring direction that a lesser film would take it – to a simple romantic entanglement – but goes instead to the development of a relationship both intellectual and professional. In short, they want to work with Sara!
This may reflect, in many ways, the ideal of philosophy: that one loses oneself so deeply in its labor of love that artists, scientists, politicians, and communities fall in love and seek to build a world with the philosopher.
It is tragic but not altogether unfitting, then, that Losing Ground did not begin to receive its due until well after Kathleen Collins’ death in 1986. Collins, in addition to filmmaking, was a playwright, writer, and educator, who received her degree in religion and philosophy at Skidmore. It was her daughter who resurrected the film (alongside other of her works) and ultimately brought it to the public, and in parallel, it can be argued that the ideal of philosophy may not lie in recognition by one’s peers but rather in being valued by generations who follow and who work to build a world that values the ancestral labor that set it afoot.
Sara, writing of rituals in Vodun wherein the participant experiences an unconscious ecstasy, states: “The aesthetic moment is, so to speak, after the fact.”
Like many black women before her, Kathleen Collins simply did not fit the aesthetic models of valuation that determined success and recognition in her lifetime. Her aesthetic appreciation may, simply, lie after the fact. Those of us who now succeed her, then, are left with a simple—if daunting—task: to build a world that values and reciprocates the love this wonderful film offers to us.
Thomas Meagher is a doctoral student at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where he is scheduled to defend his dissertation in April 2018, “Maturity in a Human World: A Philosophical Study.” His areas of specialization are Africana Philosophy, Social and Existential Phenomenology, Political Philosophy, Caribbean Thought, and Philosophical Anthropology.
The 2018 American Philosophical Association Pacific Division Meeting will be held in San Diego and will feature this panel that may be of interest to readers of Black Issues in Philosophy:
6M COMMITTEE SESSION: Stephen C. Ferguson, Philosophy of African American Studies
Friday, 4 PM to 6 PM
- John McClendon (Michigan State University)
- Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò (University of California at Los Angeles)
- Jared Rodriguez (Northwestern University)
- Stephen Ferguson (North Carolina State University)
9B INVITED SYMPOSIUM: Beyond Social Contract Theory: Marginalization, Citizenship, and Rights
Chair: Antuan Johnson (Yale University)
- Tina Botts (California State University, Fresno), “Aristotle’s Proportional Equality and the Equal Protection Clause”
- Charles Peterson (Oberlin College), “Social Nullification: The Materiality of Black Life”
- Raff Donelson (Louisiana State University)
G9D Society for the Study of the History of Analytical Philosophy
Topic: Social Justice and the History of Analytic Philosophy
Friday evening, 7 PM to 10 PM
Chair: London Elkind (University of Iowa)
- Matt LaVine (State University of New York at Potsdam), “Discursive Injustice and the History of Analytical Philosophy: The Marcus/Kripke Case”
- Teresa Kouri Kissel (Old Dominion University), “Learning from Stebbing’s Ideals and Illusions”
- Liam Kofi Bright (Carnegie Mellon University and London School of Economics), “Logical Empiricists on Race”
- Lewis Gordon (University of Connecticut), “The Formal Is Not Identical with the Ideal: An Africana History of Analytical Political Philosophy”
10J Colloquium: Racial Categories (in 3 parts)
Saturday, 9 Am to noon
Chair: Bas Tonissen (University of California, San Diego)
Speaker: Louise Pedersen (University of Utah), “The Race debate and the Work of Intuitions”
Commentator: Edouard Machery (University of Pittsburgh)
Chair: Carlos Santana (University of Utah)
Speaker: Kamuran Osmanoglu (University of Kansas), “The Biological Reality of Race Does Not Underwrite the Social Reality of Race”
Commentator: Aleta Quinn (University of Pittsburgh)
Chair: Saray Ayala-Lopez (California State University, Sacramento)
Speaker: Aaron Griffith (College of William and Mary), “Realizing Race”
Commentator: Shay Welch (Spelman College)
1011 APA COMMITTEE SESSIONS: Doing Philosophy with Disability
Saturday morning, 9 AM till noon
Chair: Joseph Stramondo (San Diego State University)
- Christine Wieseler (University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston), “Reflections on Embodiment in the Classroom: or, A Disabled Philosopher Walks into a Medical School”
- Teresa Blankmeyer Burke (Gallaudet University), “Disability Calculus: Silencing and Speaking Out”
- Audrey Yap (University of Victoria), “Ableist Narratives and Self-Identification”
11C Invited Symposium: (Re)thinking Race and Responsibility
Saturday afternoon, 1 PM till 4 PM
Chair: Marie Draz (San Diego State University)
- Shannon Sinnubst (Ohio State University), “Feeling Whiteness Without Liberal Sentimentality”
- Ladelle McWhorter (University of Richmond), “Responsibility, Response-ability, and Responsibilization”
- Ellen Armour (Vanderbilt University), “The Virtual and the Visual: Race, Responsibility, and Social Media”
11K APA COMMITTEE SESSION: Justice in the Aftermath of Injustice: The Limits of Liberalism for People of Color
Saturday afternoon, 1 PM till 4 PM
Chair: Sara Goering (University of Washington)
- Denise James (University of Dayton), “The Many Conditions of Freedom: A Black Feminist Proposal”
- A.Y. Odedeyi (Michigan State University), “The Limits of Freedom and Speech and Joy”
- John Torrey (University of Memphis), “The Limit of Overcoming Injustice without Combatting Misrecognition”
12G APA COMMITTEE SESSION: Bok Symposium: John McClendon, Philosophy of Religion and the African American Experience
Saturday, 4 PM to 6 PM
- Stephen Ferguson (North Carolina State University)
- Anthony Neal (Mississippi State University)
- Malik Simba (California State University, Fresno)
- John McClendon (Michigan State University)
12H APA COMMITTEE SESSION: Philosophical Outreach: The Face and Space of Philosophy
Saturday evening, 4 PM to 6 PM
Chair: Marisol Brito (Metropolitan State University)
- Amy Reed-Sandoval (University of Texas at El Paso), “Make Space for the Philosophical Children of Philosophy:
- Stephanie Rivera Berruz (William Paterson University), “What Does Inclusivity Look Like? Reflections on the Changing Face of Philosophy”
- Andrea Sullivan-Clarke (University of Washington), “Changing the Face through Inclusive Space: the Inaugural Voyage of ISHIP”