Nihilism On The Metaphysical Screen: The Fate of Gilles Deleuze’s Cinematic Ethics


  • Laurence Kent King’s College London


Gilles Deleuze, Metaphysics, Agency, Film-Philosophy, Politics


“I feel I am a pure metaphysician,” declared Gilles Deleuze in a 1981 interview, and although perhaps his statement is more provocation than proof, this article takes Deleuze’s admission seriously in a reading of his Cinema books. Commentary on Deleuze in film-philosophical scholarship has been largely typical of a reluctance to fully interrogate his metaphysical commitments, epitomised by the recent alignment of his work with the writings of Stanley Cavell. It is ethics that provides the common touchstone for Cavell’s and Deleuze’s philosophies of cinema, and D.N. Rodowick argues that an imagined “conversation” between the two thinkers can be productive. For Rodowick, Deleuze’s ethics of belief and Cavell’s Emersonian moral perfectionism are “a sinuous line along which [their] accounts of ontology complement one another.” My article argues that this leads to a misreading of the Deleuzian ethics; it will require emphasising Deleuze’s metaphysics, his claims on how reality itself is produced, in order to reorient this reading of his ethical project.

Deleuze’s ethical problematic concerns “the modern fact (…) that we no longer believe in this world.” Rodowick reads this as synonymous with scepticism: the creeping fear of the non-existence of external reality. He posits that Cavell and Deleuze both respond to the problem of scepticism by emphasising the link between cinema and belief, thus arguing that we cannot know the existence of the world but that we must believe instead. This is despite the different metaphysical commitments of the two philosophers, and Rodowick states that “Deleuze’s Spinozan ontology presents a universe where scepticism should be made irrelevant.” This means that Rodowick is led to posit “Deleuze’s unacknowledged scepticism” as that which unsettles Deleuze’s philosophical position; it is “Deleuze’s difficulty in accounting for the human dimensions” of the existential concerns that arise after World War II that explains this contradiction, and Rodowick reads Deleuze against himself to assert a humanist account of his ethics.

I posit that it is as a response to nihilism that Deleuze’s ethics of belief is situated, and I use this metaphysical reorientation to draw out the fatalistic implications of Deleuze’s cinematic ethics, probing the question of whether or not it is fit for purpose today. The possibilities of agency and human freedom are diminished within Deleuze’s philosophical system as there is a deferral to a metaphysical reality of primary production that dictates ethical preferences. Instead of pacifying Deleuze by emphasising humanistic values, this article thus attempts to grapple with the full ethical and political implications of the metaphysics underlining Deleuze’s film-philosophy.




How to Cite

Kent , L. (2019). Nihilism On The Metaphysical Screen: The Fate of Gilles Deleuze’s Cinematic Ethics. Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image, (11), 27–41. Retrieved from