Dispositif, Matter, Affect, and the Real: Four Fundamental Concepts of Lyotard’s Film-Philosophy

Ashley Woodward (Lead / Corresponding author)

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Jean-François Lyotard’s work remains a largely untapped resource for film-philosophy. This paper surveys four fundamental concepts which indicate the fecundity of this work for current studies and debates. While Lyotard was generally associated with the “theory” of the 1980s which privileged language, signs, and cultural representations, much of his work in fact resonates more strongly with the new materialisms and realisms currently taking centre stage. The concepts examined here indicate the relevance of Lyotard’s work in four related contemporary contexts: the renewed interest in the dispositif, new materialism, the affective turn, and speculative realism. As Adrian Martin has argued, the concept of the dispositif (or apparatus) is ripe for rehabilitation in the contemporary context because it shows a way beyond the limiting notion of mise en scène which has dominated approaches to film. The turn from mise en scène to dispositif is a turn from a focus on the scene itself to a focus on the “mise en,” the “putting into” scene, the whole apparatus of cinema which makes cinematic effects possible. Lyotard’s prevalent use of this term is one of the sources feeding into its current renewal. Following Jean-Michel Durafour, matter may be situated as an important theme in Lyotard’s film-philosophy. If it is not one that Lyotard explicitly makes central in his writings on film, it is nevertheless one at the heart of his aesthetics, which may be extended for film, both in the context of his early “libidinal materialism,” and later work. Affect was an important theme for Lyotard in many contexts, including his approaches to film. In the essay “Two Metamorphoses of the Seductive in Cinema,” it is presented as having the power to subvert film’s “seductive” (ideological) effects. Finally, the real emerges as a central concept in Lyotard’s last essay on cinema, “The Idea of a Sovereign Film.” This concept in some ways resembles Lacan’s, but while Lacanian film theorists often see the real as symbolised within the film’s narrative, Lyotard emphasises the material and sensuous dimensions of the real which disrupt the narrative construction of the film. Perhaps surprisingly, this leads Lyotard’s approach in the direction of a speculative realist aesthetics. Each of the fundamental concepts of Lyotard’s film-philosophy are introduced in the context of the current fields and debates to which they are relevant, and are discussed with filmic examples, including Michael Snow’s La Région centrale, Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and Italian neo-realist cinema.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)303-323
Number of pages21
Issue number3
Early online dateSep 2019
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2019



  • dispositif
  • Jean-François Lyotard
  • new materialism
  • affect
  • speculative realism

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