Meet: James T. Hong
James T. Hong (洪子健) has been producing thought-provoking, unconventional, and occasionally controversial films and videos since the early 1990’s. His moving image works, described by Steve Seid of the Pacific Film Archive as “a sump- hole of chilling irony,” have shown at many prominent and obscure film festivals and galleries throughout the world. He was recently the Artist-in-Residence at the Impakt Foundation in Utrecht, The Netherlands.
James T. Hongʼs work emerges from the conflicts between different regimes of truth, of power, and of what is unsaid. As a filmmaker, he emphasizes the manipulative features of cinema itself, where the essential hermeneutic aspect of filmmaking, even so-called “experimental film,” makes cinema a form of ideology or propaganda par excellence.
Episteme’s Sean Walt: What has attracted you to philosophy over the years?
James T. Hong: Since I studied philosophy for a long time, especially in my impressionable high school and college years, it has remained an interest of mine. I had even considered an academic career teaching philosophy, and I did in fact teach “Intro to (Western) Philosophy” for a bit.
At that time, most American philosophy departments only taught the Western philosophical canon with a focus on so-called “analytic” philosophy. Eastern Philosophy was usually regulated to different departments. I remember one philosophy professor telling me that Continental European philosophers were “effeminate.”
For entertainment or to pass the time, I read philosophy books — but little to nothing of analytic philosophy, which I find utterly boring.
SW: How would you describe the role philosophy played in your days as an undergraduate or even earlier in life?
JH: I saw philosophy as exciting, as dealing with life or death questions, and most importantly with what is true. It was an escape from everyday life and its alienation. It was universal. Ironically it was my initial reading of Nietzsche, Kant, Hume, and Descartes that made me appreciate the Western philosophical tradition and more of Western culture. Since I was alienated by mainstream American culture, I gravitated toward questions concerning truth, morality, and doubt.
SW: Which thinkers or “problems” have been your most important philosophical influences?
JH: Concerning aesthetics, I would say most likely Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Kant — in that order. I still reread them. If I remember correctly, Kant (a racist) said that people in tropical climates couldn’t philosophize. I think about that whenever I am in Taiwan.
I’ve followed Zizek’s books, since he was at Minnesota in the early 90’s. I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of Platonic dialogues. I’ve had phases where I read this or that thinker religiously for a few months, such as Foucault, Descartes, Hegel, Gadamer, Bourdieu, Rorty, Jameson, or Spinoza. I also have to mention Zhuang Zi and Lao Zi.
SW: How has philosophy affected your choices in adult-life (work, family, location, etc.)?
JH: Academic philosophy certainly has not helped me make money or a living. I found academia creatively stifling and boring. It’s a patronage system with constant brown-nosing. Moreover, in my experience, it awarded safety and punished risk-taking, and the hallowed halls were far too white for me. I was usually treated like a foreign child, like an unassimilated immigrant. Of course, this was 20 years ago.
SW: What can you tell us about your new film The Duck of Nature The Duck of God?
JH: It’s designed as a kinderfilm about Spinoza. To me, this sounds like a joke, but the experiment here is to make a kinderfilm that many people like, which happens to be about Spinoza, and which also features a few cute animals. This is something that I’ve never tried to do. I am usually “experimental” in my own way, and many experiments fail.
SW: Which of your past films contain a strong philosophical tone or perspective?
JH: Many. A few examples: Behold the Asian comes from Nietzsche. The Denazification of MH is about Heidegger. The Form of the Good is from Plato. I once made a movie called The Critique of Pure Reason, but I’ve lost it. This Shall Be A Sign was inspired by Baudrillard’s death.
SW: Would you say you are doing “applied philosophy”?
JH: No. I make movies. Some are about or have philosophical themes. “Applied philosophy” should be something better.
SW: What advice would you give to young philosophy students, writers, and/or Beings?
JH: If you don’t come from money, think about money! Usually those with the time to think about philosophy or art are students or people with money. If you don’t come from money, once you are not a student, you enter the world of shit.
*The Duck of Nature The Duck of God is currently in production. James T. Hong is hopeful for an early 2012 premiere and release.