Reading Kendal Walton (2): Transparency


Look at this still from Late Spring (Banshun, 1949). Is it just an image? Or do we see something? Two people walking afar on a beach. Two bicycles in the foreground, partially framed. Do we merely see these elements or do we equally see the scene?

In “Transparent Pictures”, Kendall Walton argues that still and motion pictures are transparent. This means that we see through and by means of them the elements and scenes photographed. They mediate how we see and simultaneously let us see.

We literally see the bicycles, the people, the sea, and the beach. Obviously, these things are not in front of us, they are not tangible. With this idea, Walton is not confusing the picture with what the picture shows — a photo of a bird is evidently not a bird. What he contends is that seeing a picture is like looking at a mirror or gazing using a telescope. We see indirectly, but we see nonetheless. We see through their transparency.


“Reading Kendal Walton”: (1)

Reading Kendal Walton (1): Make-Believe


What kind of emotions do fiction films elicit in us? They seem to be different from everyday emotions. We do not really believe in the content of fictions — for instance, that the alien in Alien3 (1993) actually exists. And we also do not react as if the content is real — for instance, we do not bolt when the monster runs towards the camera. This sounds correct. Then why are we so often caught up while watching a film?

In “Fearing Fictions”, Kendall Walton argues that when we watch a film we participate in a game of make-believe with the fiction world. We do not believe, we make believe in what we see and hear. And it is because we do so that we voluntarily watch films like Alien3 despite our resultant horror, instead of simply avoiding its horrific monster.

Make-believe is fundamentally distinct from, for instance, half-belief or the suspension of belief. The latter presupposes an uncertainty that, according to Walton, is absent from make-believe. The model for this process is the children’s game of make-believe. Both activities follow implied rules that are accepted by the player. Both rely on the participant’s imagination to allow an engagement with what is fictional.

Kendal Walton


Professor Kendall Walton is coming to Kent at the end of this month for a symposium about his writings on photography and film. Until the event, I shall write a series of posts explaining some of his ideas. It is a way of engaging with his influential work and preparing for the two-day conference.

Kendall Walton teaches philosophy at the University of Michigan. His web page succinctly informs us about his research and academic history:

Much of Professor Walton’s work consists in exploring connections between theoretical questions about the arts and issues of philosophy of mind, metaphysics, and philosophy of language. His book Mimesis as Make Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts, develops a theory of make-believe and uses it to understand the nature and varieties of representation in the arts. He has written extensively on pictorial representation, fiction and the emotions, the ontological status of fictional entities, the aesthetics of music, metaphor, and aesthetic value. He has held fellowships from the NEH, the ACLS, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Stanford Humanities Center. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and President of the American Society for Aesthetics.