Women in Film Noir VII – Is Film Noir’s Visual Style Subversive?

Film noir constructs two archetypes based on a dichotomy between those who display legitimate desires and those who display illegitimate or excessive desire. Janey Place asserts that the most important element in the film noir genre is the style in which they are represented. Place asserts ‘Visually, film noir is fluid, sensual, extraordinarily expressive, making the sexually expressive women, which is its dominant image of woman, extremely powerful’.[1]  A vivid example of the destroyer’s power being represented visually can be found in Out of the Past. In one scene, during the male protagonist’s (Jeff Bailey) recollection of how he met the destroyer Kathie Moffat, the use of chiaroscuro lighting communicates Kathie’s exciting but dangerous sexuality.  When Kathie walks out of the sun, into the restaurant Jeff is sitting, the contours of shadow projected on her white dress and face obscures complete recognition. This obscurity communicates that there is a sense of dangerous “otherness” about Kathie. The lighting in this scene also forces the viewer to replicate Jeff’s gaze by locating her in the centre ground. Therefore in this scene the interplay between shadow and light communicates Kathie, wearing a white dress signifying innocence (a continued motif in Out of the Past), is dangerous. In Double Indemnity the final confrontation between Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson is another example of the visually expressive way film noir communicates evil. In this climatic scene Phyllis sits in a darkened room smoking. The light filters through Venetian blinds cutting horizontally across Walter. The lighting in this scene communicates that Walter is fractured (broken) by gazing at the dangerous sexuality of Phyllis. The destroyer figure, represented as exhibiting excessive sexuality or ambition, is therefore, to Place, ‘expressed in the visual style by their dominance in composition, angle, camera movement and lighting’.[2] To Place this dominance in composition brings into question the validity of the film’s repressive resolutions. Place continues:

It is not [the destroyer’s] inevitable demise we remember but rather their strong, dangerous, and above all, exciting sexuality… The style of these films thus overwhelm their conventional narrative content or interacts with it to produce a remarkably potent image of woman.[3]

Therefore Place’s assertion that film noir’s visual style exceeds the repressive conclusions is grounded in the belief that the powerful image of the destroyer cannot be contained by any return to the traditional moral status quo.

[1]     Place, p. 36.

[2]     Place, p. 45.

[3]     Place, p. 36.

Women in Film Noir VI – Containment of the Subversive Representation of the Domestic Sphere

Harvey’s position (explored here: V) regarding the subversive representation of the domestic sphere is flawed. Though Harvey is correct to note that the domestic sphere is often represented as poisoned or tense, as in Mildred Pierce when the unemployed Albert Pierce gets constantly undermined and nagged, the representation of the domestic sphere is far from subversive. In film noir the poisoned atmosphere is always qualified by some represented or implied transgressive act. In Double Indemnity the poisoned, stale domestic sphere is attributed to the evil of the destroyer Phyllis Dietrichson. The Dietrichson household is loveless primarily because they married, not for love, but money. Phyllis admits she married Mr. Dietrichson after his first wife died because she wanted a roof over her head. She also bitterly remarked that divorce was out of the question because all of his money is tied up in the business. Phyllis’s poisoning of the domestic sphere also extends to Mr. Dietrichson’s first marriage. Phyllis was a nurse for Mr. Dietrichson’s first wife who died of pneumonia. Lola Dietrichson (the daughter of Mr. Dietrichson) witnessed Phyllis attempt to murder the first wife by opening up all the windows and stealing all of the covers (thereby increasing the chance the first Mrs. Diestrichson would die from pneumonia). Therefore the domestic sphere’s poisonous atmosphere is attributed to the excessive lust and social ambition of Phyllis. Rather than communicate that it is the institution of marriage that is corrupt, Double Indemnity and film noir articulates that it is the individual who is responsible for the poisoned domestic sphere. The individualization of social problems is a recurring motif in Hollywood. As Theodore Adorno asserts:

Even a radical film director who wished to portray crucially important special developments like the merger of two industrial concerns could only do so by showing us the dominant figure in the office, at the conference table or in their mansions. Even if they were thereby revealed as monstrous characters, their monstrousness would still be sanctioned as a quality of individual human beings in a way that would tend to obscure the monstrousness of the system whose servile functionaries they are.[1]

That is, even if a director wishes to portray a social institution as corrupt that portrayal would locate the corruption in the heart of an individual. This individualization of institutional corruption or contradictions inherently obscures the system behind the corruption. Double Indemnity, like Adorno’s hypothetical film, represents the corrupt domestic sphere as being determined by the qualities of an individual human being (Phyllis) rather than the contradictions inherent in the institution of marriage.

            Harvey’s second assertion that film noir facilitates the consideration of alternative “non-repressive” social institutions is also incorrect. In Mildred Pierce an alternative to the traditional patriarchal marriage is shown but the viewers are left without doubt that it is not viable or desirable. Mildred Pierce’s marriage to Monte Beragon – motivated by a desire to climb the social ladder – is non-conventional because Mildred is the “bread winner”. This reversal of traditional gender roles is presented visually through Mildred’s structured hairstyle and masculine dress-suits. The consequence of Mildred assuming the masculine role is that Monte feels emasculated. Consequently Monte conspires to undermine Mildred and does so by bringing about the downfall of her business. Therefore the “alternative” system of marriage, in which the woman controls the relationship, is shown in Mildred Pierce as being corrupt and doomed to failure. Harvey could argue that this is not the alternative to marriage implied in her article however, even if we accept this, Mildred Pierce still presents an alternative to marriage as being worse than traditional marriage. Furthermore there seems to be no ground to assume that any further alteration or alternative to the institution of marriage is going to be argued for positively in Mildred Pierce. Mildred Pierce’s resolution reaffirms my reading that film noir supports the traditional institution of marriage over the increased independence of women in the domestic and work spheres. When Mildred leaves the police interrogation room she is met by her first husband Albert who takes her arm and leads her through a massive archway into the sunrise. The message being that, although traditional marriage has its negatives, it is by far the best system available to society for the production of well-rounded individuals. Rather than criticising the traditional institute of marriage, Mildred Pierce reaffirms its place as the most natural and beneficial framework of society. Therefore, Harvey’s assertion that film noir promotes alternative institutions for the reproduction of social life is wrong.

[1]               Theodore Adorno, ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’ in Theodore Adorno, The Culture Industry, (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 61-97, p. 66.

Women in Film Noir V – Is Film Noir’s Representation of the Domestic Sphere Subversive?

In the previous four articles (can be accessed here: I, II, III, IV) I argued that Film Noir represents women as conforming to two central archetypes. These archetypes – the redeemer and the destroyer – are founded on a moral dichotomy between legitimate and illegitimate displays of desire. The redeemer exhibits legitimate desires and the destroyer displays excessive desires. I highlighted that this representation conforms to, and was informed by, the repressive structure of the Hays Code. I then noted that this representation can be located in two other Hollywood genres; the screwball comedy and melodrama. I cited Double Indemnity as an example of film noirs continuance of this tradition. As well as conforming to the structures and tradition of Hollywood (the Hays Code, screwball comedy and melodrama) I asserted that film noir’s representation of women is determined by its socio-historical context. I then concluded that the vast de- and re-territorialization of women during and after WWII can be seen as being reflected both directly and obliquely in Film Noir.

In this article, and following ones, I will further explore this claim. I will explore two counter-arguments which assert that film noir, although reflecting the dominant ideology in its narrative resolutions, is subversive. I will first explore the claim that the representation of the domestic sphere in film noir, rather than being repressive, suggests the beginnings of an attack on the institution of marriage. I will disagree and note that film noir represents the corrupt domestic sphere as being determined by the qualities of an individual human being rather than the contradictions inherent in the institution of marriage. I will therefore conclude that film noir’s representation of the domestic sphere does not constitute an attack on the institution of marriage. I will then explore the claim that the style of film noir subverts its own repressive structure. I will argue that the “powerful” moments of expression are not subversive but rather another standardized means of expressing and containing excessive ambition, lust and greed.

In contrast to my position that the narrative resolutions and characterization of Film Noir reaffirms the traditional conception of family and gender roles Sylvia Harvey argues that:

film noir offers us again and again examples of abnormal or monstrous behavior which defy the patterns established for human social interaction, and which hint at a series of radical and irresolvable contradictions buried deep within the total system of economic and social interactions that constitute the know world.[1]

Harvey agrees that Film Noir utilizes the destroyer figure as an example of illegitimate and immoral excess but asserts that this does not serve to reaffirm the status quo. Harvey asserts that the destroyer figure and the representation of the domestic sphere communicate irresolvable inconsistencies at the heart of the dominant ideology. Harvey states that ‘it is the representation of the institution of the family… in film noir [which] serves as the vehicle for the expression of frustration’.[2] To Harvey, film noir’s representation of the domestic sphere subverts the film’s repressive conclusions. Harvey goes on to assert ‘the kinds of tension characteristic of the portrayal of the family in these films suggest the beginnings of an attack on the dominant social values normally expressed through the representation of the family’.[3] Whereas I argued that film noir narrative structure and characterization reaffirmed the traditional conception of the family and domestic sphere, Harvey asserts that film noir subverts and attacks the institution of family. To Harvey this subversion and attack on the traditional institution of family is articulated through film noir’s visual style. This negative portrayal of the domestic sphere can be located in Double Indemnity. The Dietrichson home isn’t represented as flourishing or the site through which relationships thrive. When Walter Neff first walks into Phyllis Dietrichson’s living room he remarks on how stale the room smells. The music which accompanies Walter’s entrance into the living room is also dark and disharmonious. The feeling of discontent is further represented through the mise-en-scene. As Walter walks into the living room bars of light are projected across his body which appears to refer to prison uniform. The living room furniture is also stark and the darkness of the room, in contrast to the brightness of the exterior shots, further illustrates the sombre atmosphere in the Dietrichson household. Harvey further notes that the family unit is traditionally the arena in which romantic love is fostered but in Double Indemnity the domestic space only offers death.[4] To Harvey, Double Indemnity’s representation of the domestic sphere as a stale, disharmonious and ultimately deadly place constitutes a ‘violent assault on the conventional values of family life’.[5] Harvey goes on to assert that:

[The] terrible absence of family relations [in film noir] allows for the production of the seeds of counter-ideologies. [This] absence or disfigurement of the family… may be seen to encourage the consideration of alternative institutions for the reproduction of social life.[6]

Harvey believes that film noir both subverts the representation of the domestic sphere as well as facilitates the consideration of alternative non-repressive social institutions. Harvey concludes by asserting that ‘Despite the ritual punishment of acts of transgression, the vitality with which these acts are endowed produces an excess of meaning which cannot finally be contained’.[7] Harvey is therefore asserting that film noir’s repressive narrative resolutions cannot contain the subversive representation of the domestic sphere.[8]

[1]     Harvey, p. 22.

[2]     Harvey, p. 23.

[3]     Harvey, p. 23.

[4]     Harvey, p. 25.

[5]     Harvey, p. 31.

[6]     Harvey, p. 33.

[7]     Harvey, p. 33.

[8]     Harvey, p. 33.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part VII – Variablism

4.1 Variablism


In the previous section I highlighted a criticism of Moralism which centred on the claim of Immoralists that sometimes a moral blemish may contribute positively to an artwork’s value as art. I explored the cognitive argument for Immoralism. This argument holds that immoral art’s ability to allow us to explore other beliefs and worlds, often radically different to ours, produces a more vivid aesthetic experience. I concluded that the Immoralist’s argument appears to give us good reason to accept that moral blemishes can positively influence an artwork’s value qua art (and therefore reject Moralism). However, rather than adopt the Immoralist account completely I will argue for a Variablist account. In the context of the ethical criticism of art Variablism is the position that moral value can vary in its influence on an artwork’s value qua art. Variablism holds that in some instances an artwork’s moral blemish is also an aesthetic blemish. The Variablism account also holds that sometimes a moral virtue can positively influence an artwork’s value qua art. However, like the Immoralist, Variablism holds an artwork’s moral blemish may positively contribute to an artwork’s value as art. What distinguishes my account (Variablism) from Immoralism is that I also assert that sometimes an artwork’s moral virtue can be an aesthetic flaw. In this section I will provide another argument for accepting the possibility of a moral flaw improving an artwork’s value as an artwork. I will then illustrate that sometimes a moral virtue can cause an aesthetic defect in an artwork. I will therefore conclude that a Variablist account should be accepted.

            As well as the cognitive argument for Immoralism another reason to accept that moral blemishes may positively influence an artwork’s value is the “increased entertainment” argument. This argument holds that many morally dubious artworks are so successful because they dispense of moral norms and allow us to revel in immoral actions. Speeding down a motorway at twice the limit would undoubtedly be exciting but it would also be highly dangerous and potentially harmful. Although imagining it, or playing a computer game, will not have the same thrill there is something attractive about these activities because they allow us to simulate activities (such as speeding down a motorway) we wouldn’t do in the real world. Narrative fictions allow us, in our imagination, to live lives that we would not really want to live (but wouldn’t mind role-playing occasionally). In the same way that couples role-play to “spice up” their love life, we read fictions and watch films that let us imagine and engage with other worlds and moral possibilities. Many Hollywood films are successful and engaging because of, rather than despite, their immoral characters and actions. These films can let us experience, in limited fashion, a world without constricting morals, red tape and many consequences of action. One such film is Ocean’s Eleven (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2001) which features a group of thieves, confidence tricksters and criminals who con a group of casinos out of $150 million. The film’s charismatic crew draws us into revelling in their immoral actions and the film is much more exciting because we pull for the protagonist’s to get away with robbery. The aesthetic experience provided by this film is enhanced by its immoral characters.

            In section 2.3 I explored Carroll’s argument that a moral defect is an aesthetic defect if that moral blemish causes an artwork to fail to produce the intended emotional or moral responses in its audience. I agreed with Carroll that it seems possible that moral defects that inhibit an audience’s ability to engage emotionally and morally with an artwork are also aesthetic defects. Something that Carroll, and Immoralists, do not consider is that a moral virtue may function in a similar way. That is, sometimes an artwork’s moral virtue can be an aesthetic flaw. The moral correctness of some artworks, their characters and narrators, inhibit us from responding how the artwork intends us to. These artworks may also inhibit our ability to engage with the artwork. One instance of this could be George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1.). The fussy, moral correctness of the novel’s narrator, who colours the whole novel with their opinions, clouds the readers’ ability to engage fully with the characters. Rather than allowing the characters personality and depth emerge naturally, Middlemarch’s morally correct narrator continuously informs the reader what emotional and moral responses they should have towards the characters and situations. The narrator is correct in many of their estimations however; the moral correctness of their observations inhibits the readers from being able to engage with the intended emotional and moral responses. Therefore, Middlemarch inhibits its readers from having the intended emotional and moral responses: Middlemarch’s moral correctness is an aesthetic flaw. The moral correctness of an artwork may also inhibit the range of perceived potential actions for a protagonist. If the audience believes that the morally virtuous protagonist won’t act in certain ways – certain ways that the artwork claims are viable options of action – then the artwork will be less interesting and offer a lessened aesthetic experience. This is because the audience may not believe that a certain character will act in a morally dubious way and will therefore not feel any suspense when they are told, in the artwork, that the character is under suspicion of acting immorally. Therefore the moral correctness of some artworks, their characters and narrators, inhibit us from responding how the artwork intends us to. Sometimes an artwork’s moral virtue can be an aesthetic flaw.

(1.) If you didn’t find this to be the case in your reading of Middlemarch then imagine a similar novel but one in which the extreme moral correctness inhibits our ability to engage with the narrative.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part VI – Immoralism

3.3 Further Criticisms of Moralism: Challenge of Immoralism

In the previous section I explored two criticisms of Moralism. I noted that Carroll used the notion of an idealized, morally sensitive audience to sidestep issues arising from morally unaware audiences. I then examined how Carroll could conceive of that morally sensitive audience. I noted that Carroll was open to being either too strict, and therefore condemning many good and great artworks, or too moderate (losing any sense of being moralist). In this section I will explore another problem for Moralism. I will question whether Moralism is correct that moral blemishes, when they contribute to an artwork’s value, are always aesthetic blemishes. In section 2.3 and 3.1 I argued that it seems plausible that the moral elements of an artwork can affect the coherency and quality of an artwork’s aesthetic qualities. However, if a moral blemish can positively contribute to an artworks value qua artwork then Moralism is false. Therefore, I will argue that some immoral artworks are aesthetically superior because of their moral blemishes and that Moralism should be rejected.

The position which holds that an artwork may be valuable as art because of, rather than despite, its moral blemish is called Immoralism. One argument for Immoralism holds that the imaginative experience afforded by immoral artworks can be more rewarding because of their immoral nature. This is called the “cognitive argument” for Immoralism. The cognitive argument for Immoralism starts by highlighting the difference between how differently we seem to judge actions in fictions (compared to those same actions in normal life). Daniel Jacobson asserts that ‘we routinely feel things in response to works of art that would be appalling, were they responses to real-life people and events. Yet we typically don’t notice’.[1] In our everyday interaction with artworks, especially narrative fiction, we do seem to respond to fictional situations in ways that we wouldn’t if those situations were real. In Commando (Dir., Mark L. Lester, 1985), after a hard fought hand to hand battle, the protagonist John Matrix finishes his nemesis off by throwing a pipe through his stomach. As he does this the pipe goes through the antagonist’s stomach and into a steam pipe causing steam to fill the room. In response Matrix quips “time to let off some steam”. In the context of the film we find this remark funny and even strangely appropriate. However, if we witnessed that very scene in real life we would be horrified by the act and by Matrix’s callous nature – as well as the fact he did it in front of his young daughter. Therefore, in our interaction with fiction we are able to imagine, engage with and approve of many counter-factual, bizarre and immoral characters and situations that we wouldn’t in normal life. The cognitive argument for Immoralism holds that this is common feature of our engagement with art. A further claim the Immoralist makes is that a benefit of much art is that we are able to, monetarily, suspend many of our real beliefs and desires and explore, in imagination, the beliefs of other people.[2] Immoral art’s ability to allow us to explore other beliefs, often radically different to ours, is both liberating and cognitively beneficial. This is because Immoral art lets us entertain different perspectives and approaches to life. Kieran asserts:

Works which commend or fail to condemn characters and states of affairs that we would judge to be morally bad can, through getting us to take up a perspective we would not otherwise entertain, enhance the value of the imaginative experience afforded.[3]

Artworks such as Goodfellas, which glamorises the gangster lifestyle and the Omerta[4] moral code, allows us to glimpse briefly into the Mafioso world. We see the attraction of living by a strict honour code such as the Omerta and by allowing us to experience the desire to be one of the “goodfellas” we emerge with a fuller understanding of the reasons behind their actions. Obviously a counter criticism that could be levelled against this argument is that any lessons that we learn from art would be at best trivial. However, even if the lessons we learn from immoral art are short lived or superficial, immoral art is able to get us to see the world anew from another perspective. Allowing us to see the world with fresh eyes or from another perspective, radically different to our own, is what great art can do and some morally questionable art can allow us to do that in ways morally appropriate artworks cannot. As Kieran notes, one way we value an artwork’s ‘value as art is the intelligibility and reward of the imaginative experience proffered by the work’.[5] The experience offered by certain immoral artworks is emotionally powerful precisely because the experience offered is one that we wouldn’t even consider in the real world. We do not enjoy films such as Goodfellas despite their immorality; we enjoy their aesthetic experience precisely because of their immorality. Therefore, the immorality of some artworks contributes directly to its ability to offer a distinct imaginative experience unavailable to morally correct artworks. Some artwork’s moral blemishes may contribute positively to their value as art. Therefore, the cognitive argument for Immoralism gives us good reason to reject Moralism because it appears that sometimes a moral blemish in an artwork can contribute positively to an artworks value qua art.

[1]Daniel Jacobson, ‘Ethical Criticism and the Vice of Moderation’, in Matthew Kieran (ed), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006), pp. 342-357, p. 354.

[2]For an account of how our cognitive architecture allows for this see Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich, ‘A Cognitive Theory of Pretense’, Cognition 74 (2000): 115-147

[3]Matthew Kieran, ‘Forbidden Knowledge: The Challenge of Immoralism’, in Jose Luis Bermudez and Sebastian Gardner, Art and Morality, (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 56-73, p. 63.

[4]Omerta is the code that any member of a Mafia clan cannot talk to the police or agent of the state on the pain of death.

[5]Kieran, ‘Forbidden Knowledge’, p. 63.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part V – Moralism Cont.

3.2 Criticisms of Moralism

In the previous section I explored Carroll’s claim that moral virtues and flaws are sometimes aesthetic virtues and flaws. In this section I will explore some criticisms of Moralism. One of Carroll’s central claims was that his account allowed there to be artworks with moral flaws to remain artistically unblemished. In support of this claim I noted that we seem able to enjoy artworks such as Rebecca and Red Heat regardless of their morally questionable nature (sexism, racist stereotypes). As Schellekens notes, Carroll’s claim is therefore that ‘moral character only takes on importance in relation to our overall assessment when it somehow impedes our capacity to engage with the artwork or to respond to it appropriately’.(1.) According to Carroll if a moral flaw doesn’t impede the audiences’ capacity to engage with the artwork then it isn’t an artistic one too. However, if as I noted in section 2.3 the theoretical Milošević film is shown to the right audience – one which does admire Milošević – they will have the intended emotional responses. If all that is required for a moral blemish to escape being an aesthetic one is that an audience experience the intended emotional and moral responses then the Autonomist could easily conjure up a potential intended audience for every immoral artwork.(2.) In reply to this Carroll holds that even if an actual audience (the pro-Milošević lobby) is not impeded from engaging with an immoral artwork the artwork may still be aesthetically flawed. Carroll asserts that a moral blemish:

will also count as an [aesthetic] blemish even if it is not detected – so long as it is there to be detected by morally sensitive audiences whose response to the work’s agenda will be spoilt by it. A blemish is still a blemish even if it goes unnoticed for the longest time.(3.)

Carroll attempts to sidestep the criticism by holding that it is not whether a particular audience is impeded (or not) from engaging with the Milošević film. The film’s moral flaw is also an aesthetic one if an ideal morally sensitive audience is unable to respond with the intended emotional and moral responses. Responding with sympathy and admiration to the Milošević film is not something a morally sensitive audience would do – as it entails advocating genocide. Therefore the Milošević film’s moral flaw is also an aesthetic one.

            Carroll’s use of an idealized morally sensitive audience allows Moralism to sidestep issues arising from morally insensitive or unaware audiences. However, if Moralism relies on an idealized audience then there needs to be further clarification on how idealized and morally sensitive that audience should be. Many films feature minor defects in a film’s representation of race, gender or sexuality. Therefore if Carroll’s notion of a morally sensitive audience is too idealized them it appears unlikely that they would forgive the sexism of Rebecca, the racist stereotypes in Red Heat or the explicit rape scenes in the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dir., Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) or Deliverance (Dir., John Boorman, 1972). The consequence being that many good and great artworks would be found to be aesthetically flawed. If the notion of a morally sensitive audience is hardly idealized at all then it remains to be seen why the audience could not be conceived of easily enjoying many immoral films without issue. If the idealized audience is an average one then artworks like the hypothetical Milošević film will fail to produce the intended emotional and moral responses but morally questionable films such as Goodfellas (Dir., Martin Scorsese, 1990) will be successful in their intention to produce sympathy and admiration for gangsters who commit murder and other hideous crimes. The issue for Carroll is that any account which calls itself Moralism and doesn’t find artworks like Goodfellas morally and aesthetically defective is in serious danger of losing its Moralist credentials.

(1.) Schellekens, Aesthetics and Morality, p. 69

(2.) This criticism doesn’t come close to saving the Autonomist position – as moral elements may still positively contribute to an artworks value qua artwork – but it is an important query that the Autonomist can raise in regard to the success of Moralism as an account.

(3.) Carroll, ‘Moderate Moralism’, p. 234.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part IV – Moralism

3.1 Moralism

In the previous two sections I explored some criticisms of Autonomism. I highlighted that with certain art forms (such as representative art) it appears that the moral stance directly influences the quality of an artwork’s representation. In this section I will explore an account advanced by Carroll called (Moderate) Moralism (1.). Moralists hold that moral character is central to our appreciation and assessment of artwork. (2.) They also hold that a moral flaw (or virtue) can be an aesthetic flaw (or virtue). An immediate criticism that is levelled against Moralism is that there are many artworks that are morally questionable that we seem able to appreciate without issue. If moral defects are always aesthetic defects then why is it that we can appreciate sexist films such as Rebecca (Dir., Alfred Hitchcock, 1940). However, Carroll asserts that his form of Moralism escapes this criticism because he does not hold that every moral flaw is an aesthetic one. Carroll asserts that:

Moderate Moralism does not claim that every moral defect in an artwork is an aesthetic defect. Artworks can be immensely subtle in terms of their moral commitments. Morally defective portrayals may elude even morally sensitive audiences and may require careful interpretation in order to be unearthed. (3.)

There are many artworks that feature unflattering stereotypes. Artworks that portray morally insensitive stereotypes are often also aesthetically flawed (such as Tintin au Congo) but there are many Hollywood films which contain stereotypes which are not diminished aesthetically. One such film is Red Heat (Dir., Walter Hill, 1988) which features a stereotypical Soviet character Capt. Ivan Danko who joins up with smart-ass American cop Det. Sgt. Art Ridžić to thwart a drug smuggling enterprise. The film achieves a good level of drama, action and comedy despite Danko being a classic cold-war Soviet stereotype. Therefore, there are certain artworks that feature morally questionable elements which do not influence artistic value. According to Carroll this is because the audiences’ intended emotional and moral responses are not inhibited by the depiction of stereotypes in these cases. So in cases such as Rebecca and Red Heat the Moralist can argue that the audience is able to have the intended emotion and moral responses despite the morally questionable elements of these artworks.

            As I noted in section 2.3 Carroll asserted that it is an aesthetic defect if an artwork fails to produce the intended emotional or moral responses in its audience. If a thriller doesn’t thrill its audience then it would be seen as aesthetically defective or inferior.  If the reason for the thrillers lack of success is because of some moral feature of the work – the audience just can’t engage with such a racist depiction – then that moral feature (defect) can be said to be an aesthetic defect. Similarly, if an artwork is more vividly dramatic due to the artwork’s moral elements then that moral element (virtue) can be said to be an aesthetic virtue. One particular instance of this is Casablanca (Dir., Michael Curtiz, 1942) which explores the issue of self-sacrifice over personal profit. In Vichy-controlled French Morocco Casablanca’s central protagonist Rick Blaine struggles to choose between staying neutral and reigniting a past relationship or getting involved on the side of the Allies and sacrificing both his successful nightclub and any chance of a relationship with his former love. Through the film’s development of this issue the audience responds by desiring that Blaine reignite his relationship with his former love whilst also accepting that he must sacrifice that relationship for the greater good. Therefore, the film’s central moral element not only provides impetus to the film’s narrative but it also produces complex contradictory desires in its audience enabling a more powerful aesthetic experience. That is, the moral element of Casablanca contributes considerably to how much tension and drama the audience experiences. Therefore, moral virtues and flaws can sometimes be aesthetic virtues and flaws.

(1.) Although Carroll calls his position Moderate Moralism I will only call it Moralism. The forms of Moralism that assert that artwork’s moral defects are always aesthetic defects are so strong that they are better known as Extreme Moralism or Severe Moralism.

(2.) Elisabeth Schellekens, Aesthetics and Morality, p. 68.

(3.) Noel Carroll, ‘Art and Ethical Criticism’, p. 378

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part III – Autonomism Cont.

2.3 Further Criticisms of Autonomism: How Moral Value can affect Artistic Value

A second approach to criticising Autonomism is to show how moral value can effect an artworks value as an artwork. This approach is advocated by Carroll who argues that many fictions explicitly derive their value from producing emotional responses based on moral assessments.(1.) Carroll starts by asserting that ‘Artworks are incomplete structures – at least in the special sense that they need to be filled in by audiences’. (2.) By this Carroll means that fictions often require readers to assume that the characters have the normal biological make-up of a human and infer that they travel between two points by car or walking rather than just transporting through time and space. As well as these physiological inferences, Carroll asserts that ‘Audiences must also fill in the novel with the appropriate emotional responses, if they are to follow it correctly’.(3.) To Carroll, for a romantic comedy to be artistically successful the readers must desire the two protagonists to fall in love and “live happily ever after”. If those protagonists are uninteresting, immoral or dull then the audience will not invest emotionally and the romantic comedy will fail to be a successful artwork. Carroll calls this the intended “emotive uptake” and asserts that it is an aesthetic defect if an artwork fails to produce it in its audience. Carroll asserts that one of the central ways that the audience can fail to have the correct emotional uptake is if the artwork invites its audience to share in an immoral perspective. To understand what Carroll means here imagine a film which intends the audience to sympathize with and admire the former President of Yugoslavia and war criminal Slobodan Milošević. Through interviews with former comrades and dramatic reconstructions the film portrays Milošević as a humanitarian, brilliant tactician and worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. By supporting Milošević this hypothetical film advocates a whole plethora of immoral positions (such as genocide). It is clear that most audiences would fail to adopt the film’s intended emotional uptake (admiration for Milošević). Therefore, as well as being morally defective, Carroll would argue that the film is artistically defective. (4.) This is because it fails in its aim to produce sympathy and admiration for Milošević.

Carroll attempts to establish that to be successful art (1) needs its audience to have certain moral and emotional responses and (2) that it is an artistic defect if the audience does not experience the intended moral and emotional responses. In response to Carroll’s argument the Autonomist could reassert that there is no connection between the moral disgust and the film’s failure as art. The Autonomist could concede that the Milošević film is morally flawed and this moral flaw stops its audience from engaging with the film. However, the Autonomist will bring into question whether Carroll conclusively illustrates why that moral flaw is an artistic one. The Milošević film may be beautifully filmed with masterful control of editing, colour, sound and mise en scene which, when shown to the right audience (one which does admire Milošević), will have the intended emotional responses. That everyday audiences would not have the correct emotional or moral response does not indicate that the film is artistically flawed.  However, if our emotional and moral engagement is central to our ability to appreciate certain artworks (such as narrative fiction) then there does seem to be an issue for Autonomism. If the moral stance of a film influences the form of representation and that form of representation fails to convey the right experience (admiration, suspense) then the moral aspect of a film appears to be aesthetically relevant. As Berys Gaut notes, evaluating George Eliot’s Middlemarch is practically impossible if one attempts to evaluate it aesthetically without taking in to account its moral elements.(5.) Gaut continues ‘One cannot set aside Elliot’s ethical stance while keeping anything remotely resembling her novel before one’s view’.(6.)  If some forms of art explicitly derive their aesthetic qualities from their moral stance then moral value appears to be important to some forms of art. If that moral value adds to, or detracts from, that artwork’s coherence or aesthetic qualities then moral criticism can be said to be artistically relevant. A vivid example of this is Tintin au Congo. Tintin au Congo features a morally reprehensible representation of Congolese “natives” whose characterization and depiction was inspired by an immoral, racist, colonial understanding of Africans. This (naïvely) racist depiction of the Congolese informed the aesthetic nature of the Congolese characters (how they looked) and their blundering actions (how they acted). Every element of Tintin au Congo is informed by the awful depiction of the Congolese and this insensitive representation makes the plot less vivid (Tintin’s victory over a large band of nitwits is hardly awe-inspiring), less interesting (it is harder to engage with the story) and therefore aesthetically worse. In regards to some forms of art, moral flaws also appear to be aesthetic flaws. The single most important criticism of Autonomism regards whether moral criticisms can be shown to be artistic criticisms too. I have argued that the moral component of an artwork appears to enhance (or diminish) an artwork’s value (qua artwork) and therefore Autonomism is false. However, what remains to be seen is to what extent moral value effects artistic value.

(1.) Noel Carroll, ‘Moderate Moralism Versus Moderate Autonomism’, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol 38, No. 4, October 1998, pp 419-424, p. 420.

(2.) Ibid, p. 419.

(3.) Ibid, p. 420.

(4.) Ibid, p. 421.

(5.) Berys Gaut, ‘Art and Ethics’, in Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes (ed), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 341-352, p. 345.

(6.) Ibid, p. 345.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part II – Autonomism Cont.

2.2 Criticising Autonomism

In the previous section I explored Autonomism. Autonomists hold that moral value and artistic value are two distinct and unconnected criteria of evaluation. In the previous section I highlighted two arguments for their account. The first related to Autonomism’s ability to explain how we evaluate immoral art. I highlighted Schellekens example of Manet’s Olympia as an example of art of which the moral and artistic value are unconnected. The second argument for Autonomism I explored related to whether moral criticism can be an appropriate criterion of aesthetic evaluation. Autonomists assert that moral criticism cannot be a part of the aesthetic evaluation of art because there are some artworks that are not viable for moral criticism (such as orchestral art). Although it seems correct that some forms of art are inappropriate for moral criticism, this does indicate why some forms of art, such as narrative fiction, which explicitly elicit moral responses and readings, are not open for moral evaluation. As Carroll asserts:

it is appropriate to do so with respect to King Lear or Potemkin, since those works of art are expressly designed to elicit moral reactions, and it is part of the form of life to which they belong that audiences respond morally to them on the basis of their recognition that that is what they are intended to do(1.)

Some genres and forms of art explicitly rely on arousing emotional and moral responses for their success. This indicates that, at the very least, genres such as narrative fiction are viable for moral evaluation.

A significant criticism of Autonomism centres on whether we really value art just for its aesthetic qualities. This line of argument has been developed in several ways. One approach is to show that even in the everyday admiration of canonical works we value them for more than their aesthetic qualities.  Imagine that we are faced with two visually identical works, one by Francis Bacon and the other an art student. If we consider which one is artistically superior we will argue for Bacon’s original. One of the reasons why we value Bacon’s artwork over the student’s effort is that Bacon’s shows originality and is historically important in the continued evolution of modern and post-modern art. Beyond an artwork’s formal aesthetic features we value art for its originality and historical value. The early works of Alfred Hitchcock are decent, though often plodding and lumber-some. However, they are admired because they show the emerging style of Hitchcock and often contain innovative, though crude, uses of cinematic techniques. Murder! (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1931) features the first use of voice-over but by modern standards the technique is clumsy and strained. Murder! is valued as art as much for its historical significance as it is for its aesthetic qualities. In response to this criticism the Autonomist could attempt to defend a purely “formalist” approach and re-assert that art’s value is solely an aesthetic affair. However, rather than have to articulate and defend a formalist approach the Autonomist could concede that historical value is an important part of our evaluation of art but that, like moral evaluation, it is separate from how we evaluate art’s value as art.

(1.) Noel Carroll, ‘Moderate Moralism’, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 36, No. 3, July 1996, p. 223-238, p. 226.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part I – Autonomism

1.1 Introduction

In a series of articles I will explore whether a moral blemish(1.) (or virtue) in an artwork(2.) can also be said to be an aesthetic blemish (or virtue). I will start by exploring Autonomism. Autonomists hold that moral value and aesthetic value are two distinct and unconnected criteria of evaluation. I will note that Autonomist’s believe that their account can explain our fascination with amoral and immoral artworks successfully and should therefore be accepted.

2.1 Autonomism

In this section I will explore the arguments for Autonomism. Autonomists hold that moral value and artistic value are two distinct and unconnected criteria of evaluation. Anderson and Dean explain ‘it is never the moral component of the criticism as such that diminishes or strengthens the value of an artwork qua artwork’.(3.) To the Autonomist only “aesthetic” flaws can be correctly called artistic flaws. The Autonomist asserts that moral value and artistic value are therefore two distinct ways of evaluating an artwork. In support of this position the Autonomist can highlight cases in which there is an easily distinguishable difference between moral and artistic value. Elisabeth Schellekens notes:

it seems completely appropriate with regards to artworks such as the provocative and proud prostitute that Manet depicts in Olympia to pay no attention to the moral content and perspective imposed upon us by these works when we evaluate them.(4.)

Though it may be argued that to a modern audience Olympia is no longer shocking, it seems correct that we ignore the moral stance of Olympia and judge Manet’s painting on the quality of its formal features. Another reason cited for accepting Autonomism is its explanatory power.(5.) The Autonomist argues that holding artistic and moral value to be distinct also explains features of our interaction with and the evaluation of art. The Birth of a Nation (Dir. D W Griffith, 1915) is valued as art because of its innovative formal features and interesting narrative structure. However, The Birth of a Nation is racist in both its depiction of African-Americans and its advocacy of the Klu Klux Klan. Autonomism is able to explain these two different valuations of an artwork because artistic and moral value is independent of each other.

Autonomists also argue for their position by questioning whether ethical criticism is an acceptable criterion of art. There are many forms and genres of art. Some of these forms of art, such as abstract art and orchestral music, appear to have no connection to morality. This claim does seem plausible for there appears to be art-forms and artworks – such as Poltrona Cecilia II by Victor Monserrate – that have no real moral significance or standpoint. The Autonomist believes this indicates that there are some artworks not viable for moral criticism. Noel Carroll explains the Autonomist then moves to argue that ‘whatever we identify as the value of art should be such that every artwork can be assessed in accordance with it’.(6.)As artistic value is a standard of assessment that should be applicable to all artworks then moral criticism cannot be a part of that standard because there are some artworks that are not viable for moral criticism. The Autonomist concludes that, as all artworks aim to produce an aesthetic experience, the sole criterion of an artwork’s value (qua artwork) is their aesthetic qualities.

(1.) In this paper I will use a liberal notion of a moral blemish. I will take an artwork to feature a moral blemish if it promotes a morally reprehensible position without censure or qualification. Whether this notion is acceptable will of course be up to debate and therefore suitible for another article in the future.

(2.) It should be noted that I will be using a non-evaluative notion of art in this paper. I will take it to be that an artwork is an object conferred upon it the title of art by an appropriate institution or cultural body.

(3.) James Anderson and Jeffrey Dean, ‘Moderate Autonomism’, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 38, No. 2, April 1998, pp. 150-167, p. 152.

(4.) Elisabeth Schellekens, Aesthetics and Morality, (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007), p. 73.

(5.) Anderson and Dean, ‘Moderate Autonomism’, p. 165.

(6.) Noel Carroll, ‘Art and Ethical Criticism’, Ethics, Vol. 110, No. 2, Jan., 2000, pp. 350-387, p. 352.

An Exploration of Deleuze and Guattari’s Concept of the Rhizome

The rhizome is a philosophical concept advanced by Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. A rhizome is a form of plant-life which spreads, such as mushroom or crabgrass, without a central root, spot of origination or logical pattern. This symbol of rootlessness is used by Deleuze and Guattari because it opposes the traditional, rational and logical approach to knowledge. Often the traditional (logical) approach to knowledge is represented as growing from roots – like a tree does.[1]Deleuze and Guattari explain that the rhizome ‘has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills’.[2] The rhizome is a ‘self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end’.[3]The rhizome ‘brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states’.[4] As a concept the rhizome is a rejection of traditional genealogy. It is the interplay between rival sign systems in the production of new ‘variation[s], expansion[s], conquest[s], [and] offshoots’.[5]The rhizome is a rejection of the assumptions and history of the dominant class. Deleuze and Guattari argue that this minor-oriented – rather than dominant-oriented – philosophical approach is achieved by ‘surveying, mapping’ those lost or dominated cultures, classes, sexes and races.[6] However, the rhizome isn’t an anthropological study of culture, but rather a living organic continuous effort to free the forces that have been constrained – and in relation to literature, a challenge to the assumed literary canon.  Tony  Harrison’s poetry could be argued to survey and maps this effect  while simultaneously challenging the literary establishment, mixing the form of poetry with the voice of the working-class.


In the poem ‘Them & [uz]’ Harrison recalls the attitude his teachers had to his accent. The teacher tells Harrison ‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death/… We say [Λs] not [uz], T. W.!’.[7] Consigned to the Drunken Porter role in Macbeth the teacher explains ‘Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those/ Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: Prose!’.[8] Harrison’s accent relegates him to the comic role. In reaction to being told that his accent relegates him to prose and comic roles, Harrison writes ‘So right, yer buggers, then! We’ll occupy/ your lousy leasehold Poetry/… I’m Tony Harrison no longer you!’.[9]Leasehold is a form of property ownership which is temporary: the institution of school only has a tentative grip on poetry – it is as much Harrisons as it is the teachers. As Harrison notes ‘Wordsworth’s matter/water are full rhymes’.[10] The Oxford-English pronouncement of poetry is only one variation: Oxford-English is as much a socio-economic variation of speech as is Yorkshire-English. Harrison also highlights Wordsworth’s northern accent, something lost in the school’s canonization of poetry. Harrison’s poetry exposes the “white-washing” of dialect and literature’s history by the centralized institution of school. As Rosemary Burton notes:


Harrison fraternised with the enemy, schooled himself in the use of their armoury and, equipped with an education, several languages, and a hard-earned facility for the composition of verse, he plotted revenge on his teachers and the class system which had made his parents and people like them feel inadequate.[11]


Formal education, poetry, the arts have not often been tools accessible to the working-class but the scholarship boy offers a link between the two worlds. Harrison occupies poetry, utilizing his formal education to expose the destructive element of education, to survey, map the feelings, trials and life of the educated and not-so educated working-class.


The use of the sonnet is important in Harrison’s assault on the assumptions of the Oxford-English institutions. As Ken Worpole notes, the sonnet ‘is a literary form derived from the importance of the voice’ and the rhythm of speech.[12]In his sonnets Harrison has combined the traditional literary form with his accent to produce a radical critique of education and class. This ability to write and speak is important, as Harrison notes in ‘National Trust’ ‘The dumb go down in history and disappear/… the tongueless man gets his land took.’.[13]It is vital to the continued survival of minor communities that they retain their ability to speak, and speak in their own language and with their own accent. Harrison’s use of poetry to undermine Oxford-English is rhizomic thinking in its very essence. By combining the sonnet – a symbol of education – with his northern accent and turns of phrase Harrison undermines the centralized, dominant accent of Oxford-English. Harrison combines the canonical literary form of the sonnet with the speech and accent of his minority culture. This rhizomic, nomadic thinking undercuts and undermines the rooted validity and assumed superiority of Oxford-English. Harrison’s accent is a tool of poetry and poetry a tool of expression of his class-origins. At the end of the poem ‘V’ Harrison explains that if the reader wishes to understand his poetry they should read the epitaph planned:


Beneath your feet’s a poet, then a pit

 Poetry supporter, if you’re here to find how poems can grow from (beat you to it!) SHIT

 find the beef, the beer, the bread, then look behind…[14]


To understand the working-class poet, or working class, one has to locate the community and their occupations – and still look further. The working-class are defined by their work – even though at times employment has been scarce – but they are not solely defined by their employment. To understand Harrison’s poetry, and the effect of education of people similar to him, one must look at the communities he grew up in and the culture that fostered him. This can only be achieved by the existence of minor-literature – such as Harrison’s poetry. As the minor-poet Fred Hurst wrote, in full Yorkshire dialect:


Mills cloised, pits cloised, weer wo t’ jobs ta be fahnd?

Aht o’ t’ industrial muck an’ sweeaht, dialect is seen ta remain,

Nah t’ Minister states, “From usin’ dialect we must refrain.”

‘Victorian businesses built fortunes on ahr Faathers’ back,

Keep talkin’ dialect, we must nivver loise t’ knack.’.[15]


Education is a poisoned chalice for the working class but it offers the space, and the tools, with which to “nivver loise t’ knack” of conversing, mapping and expanding their dialect, their own minor-history. Harrison’s poetry is a perfect example of rhizomic art.


[1]    An indicator of this is Saussure’s utilization of the sign of tree in his explanation of his structural linguistic system.

[2]    Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, ‘Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’, in Leitch, Cain, Finke et al (ed), The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, London: W W Norton & Company Inc, (2001), pp. 1601-1609, p. 1605.

[3]    Deleuze and Guattari, pp. 1605-1606.

[4]    Deleuze and Guattari, p. 1605.

[5]    Deleuze and Guattari, p. 1605.

[6]    Deleuze and Guattari, p. 1603

[7]    Tony Harrison, ‘Them & [uz]’, in Tony Harrison Selected Poems (second edition), London: Penguin Books, (1987), pp. 1220123, p. 122.

[8]    Harrison, ‘Them & [uz]’, p. 122.

[9]    Harrison, ‘Them & [uz]’, p. 123.

[10]  Harrison, ‘Them & [uz]’, p. 123.

[11]  Rosemary Burton, ‘Tony Harrison: An Introduction’, in Neil Astley (ed), Tony Harrison, Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books Ltd, (1991), pp. 14-31, p. 18.

[12]  Worpole, ‘Scholarship Boy’, p. 69.

[13]  Tony Harrison, ‘National Trust’, in Tony Harrison: Selected Poems (second edition), London: Penguin Books, (1987), p. 121, p. 121.

[14]  Tony Harrison, ‘V’, in Tony Harrison Selected Poems (second edition), London: Penguin Books, (1987), pp. 239-249, p. 249.

[15]  Fred Hirst, ‘Wahrk An’ Words’, Poetry of Fred Hirst, [Accessed  31st May 2009] http://www.yorkshire-dialect.org/authors/fred_hirst_u_z.htm#wot_abaht_termorrer

Postmodernity and the Concept of the Cyborg

Identity is a central issue in postmodernism and many theorists and artists have argued that identity is ‘infinitely mutable rather than being based on some essential nature’.(1.) An important concept is the subject in a technologically advanced capitalist society. Haraway’s concept of the Cyborg is an investigation into, and formulation of, an identity which refuses binary opposition. Haraway uses the term Cyborgs because it means a Being which is part human and part technological construct. The technological aspect is important because to Haraway ‘communications technologies and biotechnologies are the crucial tools [enabling the] recrafting [of] bodies’.(2.) Haraway states ‘neither Marxist nor radical feminist points of view have tended to embrace the status of a partial explanation: both were regularly constituted as totalities’.(3.) According to Haraway Marxism and radical feminism, both “Modernist”(4.) in their belief in political emancipation, insist on essentialist, rationalizing understandings of identity. These organizing systems, grand narratives, according to Haraway, tend to exclude oppositional and marginal discourses (voices) dominating and or excluding “others”. Haraway asserts that these rationalizing forces offer ‘unity-through-domination’.(5.) This domination or violence, according to the anti-essentialist postmodernist position, is what led to ‘Auschwitz and the Soviet Gulags’.(6.) Haraway asserts that the Cyborg rejects ‘identity grounding’ because the Cyborg would be unafraid ‘of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints’.(7.) The Cyborg is a chimera, a mixture, a hybrid. The Cyborg isn’t a Being defined by either/or – the binary construction of identity found in rationalizing “Modernist” grand narratives – but a Being defined by both/and. The Cyborg, as Malpas explains, ‘is a means of challenging those dualism that shape modern accounts of identity’ such as self/other white/black male/female: the Cyborg potentially offers ‘heteroglossia'(8.) A term originating from Mikhail Bakhtin, heteroglossia is the coexistence of multiple meanings, connotations, within one word, phrase, utterance, and in the case of Haraway’s Cyborg, a Being. Haraway’s ‘cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled post-modern collective and personal self’, an ‘organism’ according to Haraway, both social and private.(9.) To Haraway the Cyborg is a positive inhuman, a required irrational response to the rational project of Modernity and the Enlightenment.

Haraway sees the “techno-sciences” as a positive vehicle enabling a polysemic identity. However postmodernist theorists vary on the nature of science and the potential it offers. A central criticism of techno-science comes from Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard notes that ‘the development of techno-sciences has become a means of increasing disease, not of fighting it’.(10.) One such instance of science increasing disease is the over-prescription of antibiotics which has lead to the production of “superbugs” which are resistant to nearly all forms of medication. The MRSA bacterium mutated from the common bacterium Staphylococcus Aureus because of the over-prescription of antibiotics and is responsible for the death of 1,593 people in the UK in 2007 and is a growing epidemic due to an ‘increase from 51 to 1,652 deaths between 1993 and 2006’.(11.) The techno-sciences are primarily motivated by its own continuing evolution and as Lyotard notes ‘doesn’t respond to a demand coming from human needs’.(12.) The techno-sciences are ‘determined by the pragmatic logic of the markets rather than the overarching dream of a universal human good’ and therefore a part of ‘a system whose only criterion is efficiency’.(13.) The techno-sciences are explicitly linked to enabling the continuing domination of Western capitalist society.


If we engage and willingly enter into a symbiotic relationship – recrafting our bodies through science in Haraways’ words – with the techno-sciences, as the Cyborg requires, then we cannot truly be sure that the increasingly dangerous production of superbugs will not ensure that we must retreat fully into techno-science, departing from our biological identity, and succumbing to the nightmarish vision of the Robot. The Robot, and the problem of techno-science and potentially the Cyborg, is that it is programmed in computer logic which reduces identities into workable, reproducible logarithms and mathematical commands; a language of mechanical efficiency programmed to serve capitalist markets. The totalizing force of computer logic seems to be similar if not identical to the rationalizing systems of thought the Cyborg was not meant to be. The tyranny of Modernism is replaced by another tyranny; the tyranny of androgyny. The binary of either/or is replaced by both/and of the Cyborg. Rather than a positive, both/and seems to be a synonym of, and the road to, a homogeneous mass which covers and entails everything; the Cyborg comes to be another totalizing force, the Cyborg offers unity-through-domination. The Cyborg is a world of “anything goes”, a concept which seems to reproduce the very essence of capitalist culture. Lyotard notes the ‘realism of money’ or “anything goes” concept ‘accommodates every tendency just as capitalism accommodates every “need” – so long as these tendencies and needs have buying power’.(14.) The variety and eclecticism of the Cyborg’s Being is only facilitated by the continuing domination of the markets: ‘the apparently borderless postmodern world is so only for the Western elites who have the wealth and power to travel, consume and freely choose their lifestyles’.(15.) The Cyborg “myth” is an identity reliant on money, an identity determined by the financial power of the individual. A financial power which determines the constituent parts of the Being’s self; the Cyborg screams “You can wear any style you want – as long as you buy it”. The Cyborg is a reified or alienated Being, removed from the potential of opposition, it is unable to oppose the capitalist society it is borne from; the Cyborg rather than enabling difference seems to disable difference. By being both/and there seems to be a lack of space for the “other” to define itself and although the already dominant white middle-class may wish to remove any site of binary opposition the Islamic, Afro-Caribbean, working class or Eastern “others” may prefer the “violence” of binary opposition to the androgyny which the Capitalist West offers. Without this space for opposition, this no-man’s land, and difference an individual or subject cannot possibly show ‘the contradictions [a] culture contains… represses, refuses to recognise or makes unrepresentative’ and therefore becomes a cog, a robot mindlessly serving postmodernist capitalist society.(16.) Haraway’s Cyborg, a prime example of postmodernist thinking, seems to produce a problem concerning oppositional thinking in relation to the cultural dominant capitalism. The Cyborg by refusing to engage with depth – preferring to play in the shallow pool of images and depthlessness – renders itself either irrelevant in engaging with capitalism or, as I have argued, complicate with the totalizing drive for inhuman efficiency and capital. To create an oppositional grand narrative is said to be taking ourselves towards building another Auschwitz however without opposition to the totalizing force of capitalism we seem to be just as guilty, albeit implicitly rather than explicitly, of building, to use the hyperbole of postmodernism, another Gulag. What postmodernism must allow, and which the Cyborg doesn’t, is space to be different without the threat of assimilation.


The concept of identity is central to postmodernism. Haraway’s Cyborg is an anti-essentialist theory of identity which refuses binary oppositions and ideas of naturalness. The Cyborg, being part organic part techno-science, is conceived by Haraway as a positive irrational defence against rational excluding discourse. The Cyborg, a chimera, which allows heteroglossia is seen as a concept allowing both/and rather than either/or. Although Haraway sees techno-sciences as a positive, I argued that the development of techno-sciences has facilitated dangerous diseases rather than aid humanity and therefore union with technology must be approached with cynicism regarding its intentions. A further reason to be cynical is that techno-science is implicitly linked to its role in enabling the continuing domination of western capitalist society. Entering into communion with the cyborg is to recraft ourselves into a world of computer logic – a totalizing force. I noted that the hybrid nature of the Cyborg is facilitated by capitalist society and therefore the the Cyborg is complicate with the dominating rationale of the markets. The Cyborg doesn’t offer space to be different without the threat of assimilation.


1. Simon Malpas, The Postmodern, Oxon: Routledge, (2005). p. 74.

2. Donna Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’ in Vincent Leitch (ed) et al, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, London: WW Norton & Company, (2001), pp. 2269-2299. p. 2284.

3. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2277.

4. Modernist and of the Enlightenment.

5. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2277.

6. Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’ in Vincent Leitch (ed) et al, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, London: WW Norton & Company, (2001), pp. 1612-1615. p. 1610.

7. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2275.

8. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 78.

9. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2284.

10. Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’, p. 1612.

11. MRSA: Deaths decrease in 2007, (National Statistics Online), http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=1067, [Accessed 21 January 2009].

12. Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’. p. 1614.

13. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 39.

14. J F Lyotard in Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 2.

15. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 2.

16. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 30.

A Couple of Squared Circles, Sarris and Kael – Part II

Part Two: ‘Circles and Squares’ – Pauline Kael


Pauline Kael’s acerbic reply to Andrew Sarris’s ‘Notes on The Auteur Theory in 1962’ starts by examining the basic method or concept of the proposed auteur theory. Kael explains:

Sarris has noticed that in High Sierra (not a very good movie) Raoul Walsh repeated an uninteresting and obvious device that he had earlier used in a worse movie. And for some inexplicable reason, Sarris concludes that he would not have had this joy of discovery without the auteur theory.(1.)

Kael is asserting that the auteur theory venerates directors who repeat uninteresting and obvious devices. The supposed “joy” of the auteur theory, to Kael, is the celebration of a director’s usage in a bad film of a technique used in another earlier worse film. Kael also takes exception at the tone that Sarris uses in relation to the importance of the auteur theory in examining a director’s work as an organic whole. Kael asserts:

In every art form, critics traditionally notice and point out the way the artists borrow from themselves (as well as from others) and how the same device, techniques, and themes reappear in their work. This is obvious in listening to music, seeing plays, reading novels, watching actors; we take it for granted that this is how we perceive the development or the decline of an artist.(2.)

As Kael notes artists have always re-used older material. Leonardo di Vinci reused several sketches in many of his paintings and reputedly used a sketch of a young man as a template for the face of the ‘Mona Lisa’ – even though the Mona Lisa was based on a woman. What Kael seems to be asking is whether this is really a good criterion for the critique of film. Although noting the continued development of increasing technical ability, or competence in Sarris’s words, over an artist’s lifetime is important it is not often the only criterion of judgement. To Kael, a better area of critique, and the ultimate function of a critic, is ‘perceiving what is original and important in new work and helping others to see’.(3.) To Kael, Sarris concentrates on what is established, unoriginal in a work and ignores new ideas, one-offs and innovations. Kael asserts that the auteur critic only identifies how a film relates to a director’s past canon or filmography and ignores the new elements: what is “important” and makes something a new or original film.

Kael proceeds by exploring the three premises or criterion of judgement that Sarris sets out. Sarris’s three premises are:  

  1. The technical competence of a director as a criterion of value.(4.)
  2. The distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value.(5.)
  3. Interior meaning… the tension between a director’s personality and his material.(6.)

To Kael the “outer circle”, or first premise , of a director’s basic technical competence, is either a weak premise, a commonplace attitude of artistic judgement – and therefore the auteur theory is not as radical or as “fresh” as it seemed to be as a critique of film in 1962 – or a complete misunderstanding of the necessarily talents required for the production of art. Kael notes ‘sometimes the greatest artists in a medium bypass or violate the simple technical competence that is so necessary for hacks’.(7.) Kael explains further that ‘the greatness of a director like [Jean] Cocteau has nothing to do with mere technical competence: his greatness is in being able to achieve his own personal expression and style’.(8.) Kael seems to arguing that although technical competence is important to a director its use as a criterion of judgement “misses the point” in the evaluation of director’s ability to make art. Cocteau once remarked that the only technique, in any art, one needs is the technique you invent for yourself and in relation to this Kael argues that ‘if [a director] can make great films without knowing the standard methods, without the usual craftsmanship of the “good director”, then that is the way [the director] works’.(9.)

The second criterion, and according to Kael the actual premise of the auteur theory, relates to the director’s distinguishable personality. Kael, in characteristically sardonic and bitchy style, explains that:

Traditionally, in any art, the personalities of all those involved in a production have been a factor in judgement, but that the distinguishability of personality should in itself be a criterion of value completely confuses normal judgement. The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?. (10.)

In essence Kael is arguing that the distinguishable personality of a director is a poor choice for criterion of judgement. One may be able to more distinctly distinguish the gaudy, accidental, clumsy hand of a second-rate director than the light, delicate hand of a first-rate director but it does not, or should not, indicate the better director between the two. Kael goes on to add:

When a famous director makes a good movie, we look at the movie, we don’t think about the director’s personality; when he makes a stinker we notice his familiar touches because there’s not mush else to watch. (11.)

Kael is asserting that the touch of a director – the evident touch – is an indicator of a poor film or at least a symptom of boredom and apathy towards the film’s narrative. If we can distinguish the director’s personality then it is not really a ‘part of the texture of the film’ and therefore it overrides and dominates the film itself.(12.) Kael also criticises Sarris’s second criterion of judgement, and the auteur position in general, by arguing that ‘it is an insult to an artist to praise his bad work along with his good; it indicates you are incapable of judging either’. Kael asserts that this form of analysis and criticism is similar to attitudes to fashion labels ‘this is Dior, so it’s good’.(13.) Kael position is that the auteur theory cannot, once a director is given the title of auteur, discriminate between the director’s good and bad work – especially if the director fulfils the criterion or premises of the auteur theory.

The third premise, or inner circle, is, according to Kael, ‘the opposite of what we have always taken for granted in the arts, that the artist expresses himself in the unity of form and content’.(14.) To Kael the auteur theory glorifies “trash”, ‘the frustrations of a man working against the given material’.(15.) The conflict of a director’s style with the content is what produces great art to the auteur, or at least to Sarris, but to Kael is it a weakness of a film. According to Kael if a director does not unify his style, the form, with the content of the script, then the director does not produce good art. Kael explains:

Their ideal auteur is the man who signs a long-term contract, directs any script that’s handed to him, and expresses himself by shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots. If his “style” is in conflict with the story line or subject matter, so much the better.(16.)

The consequence of admiring the directors who shove style up a script’s crevasse is that ‘the director who fights to do something he cares about is a square’.(17.) This statement is related to Sarris’s criticism of Ingmar Bergman’s later work which Sarris felt had declined due to the absence of any progression of ‘technique’ which directly related to Bergman’s ‘sensibility’.(18.) Kael responds harshly – rather too angrily for a really rational debate – but does pose an interesting question wondering whether ‘writer-directors are disqualified by [the] third premise?’.(19.) Kael sums up her criticism by wondering why the auteur theory prefers certain commerical films – a saving grace of the auteur theory some will say. Kael expands on this point by asserting that ‘those travelling in auteur circles believe that making [a] purse out of a sow’s ear is an infinitely greater accomplishment than making a solid carrying case out of a good piece of leather’.(20.) Kael’s harsh criticism of the auteur theory continues into the very last vitirolic paragraph when she argues:

These [auteur] critics work embarrassingly hard trying to give some semblance of intellectual respectability to a preoccupation with mindless, repetitious commercial products… They’re not critics: they’re inside dopesters.(21.)

The auteur critic, according to Kael, prefers products made out of inferior products: mindlessly repetitious commercial films. Kael’s article is an angry, sardonic, reply to Sarris’s auteur theory – she even questions whether an auteur critic is a critic at all –  she has highlighted some problems and flaws in his conception of the primary criterion of judgement an auteur critic makes. In my next article (part III) I will conclude by examining both Sarris and Kael’s position. I will indicate where I feel both critics have got things right and got things wrong.

1. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 2nd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), pp. 666-679. p. 667.

2. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, pp. 667-668.

3. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 669.

 4. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 2nd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), pp. 650-665, p. 662.

5. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 662.

6. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 663.

7. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 669.

8. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 669.

9. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 670.

10. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 671.

 11. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 671.

12. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 672.

13. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 673.

14. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 674.

15. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, pp. 674-675.

16. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 674.

17. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 674.

18. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, pp. 662-663.

19. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 676.

20. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 678.

21. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 679.

The Ideology of Realism: Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni’s Cinema/Ideology/Criticism

In my previous article about Andre Bazin I explored his claims that the ontology of the photograph and film – ontology being the essential essence – is its ability to represent life as it appears. According to Bazin, film is inclined to, and again best when, realist in aesthetic. In a series of articles I will examine Bazin’s position on film however I came across an excerpt of Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Paul Narboni’s Cinema/Ideology/Criticism (an online copy of which can be found here) which I felt was interesting as it came from the opposite position. In this article I will explore their claims that the aesthetic of realism is a reliance on the status quo and an aesthetic implicitly reliant on ideological cultural dominants.

In the examination of Comolli and Narboni’s paper it is important to note that they are Structuralist in outlook, in contrast to Bazin who was a staunch Humanist, and they therefore perceive the realist aesthetic differently. This is immediately evidenced when Comolli and Narboni explain that film is partly a ‘product, manufactured within a given system of economic relations, and involving labour [Money] to produce… a commodity, possessing exchange value… governed by the laws if the market’ as well as ‘an ideological product of the system, which in [the Western world] means capitalism’.(1.) Film is made to be sold. Film is an art that is also primarily a source of income and export: film is explicitly a commercial product. However film, according to Comolli and Narboni, is also implicitly the product of the ideology that dominates the field, or place, it was constructed in. A film-maker, according to Comolli and Narboni, cannot change the economic circumstance, or system they find themselves in [if they could would it be the film business anymore anyway?]. One may ‘deflect it, but not negate it or seriously upset its structure’.(2.) An example of this “deflection” may be found in the music industry where the Arctic Monkeys, and several other bands, initially gave away free CDs and allowed their music to be downloaded for free. They originally refracted the “rules” or logic of the music industry however they didn’t change the system itself as after a period of time, and a rise in popularity, they returned to the normal procedure of selling music. For Comolli and Narboni film ‘is determined by the ideology which produced it’.(3.)

As I explained in my article ‘Influential Theorists: Andre Bazin – The Ontology Of The Photographic Image’ Bazin believed that film provides a reproduction of reality and although Comolli and Narboni may permit that film does reproduce reality when they say ‘this is what a camera and film stock are’ they hold a diametrically opposed view of what “reality” really is.(4.) Comolli and Narboni explain that ‘the tool and techniques of film-making are a part of [the] “reality” themselves… [Reality] is nothing but an expression of the prevailing ideology’.(5.) The realist aesthetic does not reproduce “the way things are”; it is in fact, at most an explicit and at least an implicit, a reproduction of the dominant way of seeing. Comolli and Narboni explain their position when they state ‘what the camera in fact registers is the vague, unformulated, untheorized, unthought-out world of the dominant world’.(6.) To use a similar image that Bazin utilized, film does not blow-away the “dust” of regular perceptions and conceptions but rather relies upon and reproduces that “dust” which has settled upon our way of seeing things. The realist aesthetic reproduces the way we experience the world, and the way we experience the world is defined by cultural dominants: and one major cultural dominant, of which Comolli and Narboni are particularly concerned with, is ego-centred capitalism.(7.) In Comolli and Narboni’s words:

When we set out to make a film, from the very first shot, we are encumbered by the necessity of reproducing things not as they really are but as they appear when refracted through the [dominant] ideology. (8.)

Realism is a reproduction, on the screen, of the ideological structures/world we encounter in “everyday” life. The realist aesthetic fails to comprehensively challenge or explore the structures of the dominant forces and world-view in society and art – which cannot challenge or explore sexist, racist or fascistic ideologies – is a blank critique and an utterly redundant social activity; art without the ability to challenge or explore social attitudes is not really art at all. According to Comolli and Narboni to stop film art from just becoming the “tool” of the dominant world-view ‘the film-maker’s first task is to show up the cinema’s so-called “depiction of reality”‘ and, if they are able to achieve that; the film-maker may be able to ‘sever’ or ‘disrupt’ the ‘connection between the cinema and its ideological function’.(9.)

To Comolli and Narboni just simply reproducing reality ensures one relies on the assumptions found in “everyday” life. They argue for the utilization of techniques which upset the viewers ability to accept the supposedly unadulterated reality of the world depicted. The use of jump-cuts in Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (1960) could be argued to facilitate this sort of alienating technique. There are many films that are naturalistic or realist in aesthetic that, at least appear, to transverse and critique society and this is a definite critique of Comolli and Narboni’s position. A lack of examples and instances in film of the realist aesthetic is also another critique I would level against their article – however It should be understood that the article is intended as theory rather than “practice”. Rather than quickly explore the counter-arguments a critic who favours the realist aesthetic would raise I will leave that duty to Bazin, whose position I will continue to explore in the coming weeks and months.

 (1.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, in (Ed) J. Hollows, P. Hutchings, M. Jancovich, Film Studies Reader, London: Oxford Uni Press, (2000), pp. 197-200, p. 197.

(2.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(3.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(4.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(5.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(6.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(7.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 198.

(8.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 198.

(9.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 198.

Influential Theorists: Andre Bazin – The Ontology Of The Photographic Image


Andre Bazin is undoubtedly a famous figure in film criticism and film theory. Bazin was a co-founder of the influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, a mentor and friend of Francois Truffaut and firm supporter of realism. A large collection of Bazin’s writings were complied and published posthumously and entitled What Is Cinema?. In a series of articles I will explore Bazin’s essays. The first article will be:


The Ontology of the Photographic Image1

If the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation. The process might reveal that at the origin of painting and sculpture there lies a mummy complex. The religion of ancient Egypt, aimed against death, saw survival as depending on the continued existence of the corporeal body. Thus, by providing a defence against the passage of time it satisfied a basic psychological need in man, for death is but the victory of time. To preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life. It was natural, therefore, to keep up appearances in the face of the reality of death by preserving flesh and bone.2

What Bazin is arguing here is that at the heart of the plastic arts – painting and sculpture – is a need to make immortal the mortal; to turn the image of our flesh into clay, steel and paint is to transform ourselves and preserve our being beyond its physical existence. Bazin is not, as some critics have argued, asserting that all art is solely defined by an attempt at immortalising the mortal. But that one of the defining characteristics, or innate motivations, in the production of art and artefacts, be it the mummification of Pharaohs, portraits of Kings and Emperors, is the ‘preservation of life by a representation of life’.3Bazin’s position is that the plastic arts, and I would also assert Bazin’s personal opinion in what makes art attractive, attempts to ‘have the last word in the argument with death by means of the form that endures’.4

It should be noted that Bazin died at the age of forty and death stalked him continuously throughout his life. Bazin’s attraction to realism, and an idea of art as a production of the eternal, seems inherently linked to his psychological and physiological state. The attempt to cheat or outlast death through the preservation of one’s image and world seems very close to Bazin. As Bazin explains ‘the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death’.5Just like F. Kafka’s fiction, which is infused with fears of and struggles with consumption, Bazin’s conception of the psychology of the plastic arts seems to be his own.6 That said the foundation of much art is linked to attempts at ensuring an ever-lasting legacy. From statues, palaces, portraits to tombs influential men have commissioned and produced art to represent themselves and the world they live in.


Bazin explains that painting, attempting the production of realism, encountered a problem in combining both the representation of the ‘spiritual’ real or emotionally real and the representation of the physical real.7Bazin notes that painting can successfully represent the emotionally real but that the reproduction of the physical real will always lean towards ‘illusion’.8This ‘illusion’, I believe, to Bazin meant the inability, of painting, to truly represent the outward appearances of things; a painting of a cart doesn’t really refer to a cart but rather refers to the painters painting of a cart. The cart refers back to the painter and his paint. And to Bazin not only was this a flaw of painting, in its attempt at reproducing reality, but also the main reason photography and film is so successful in the reproduction of reality. Bazin explains ‘Photography and the cinema on the other hand are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism. No matter how skilful the painter, his work was always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity. The fact that a human hand intervened cast a shadow of doubt over the image’ is unavoidable. Film, in contrast allowed, for the first time, allowed the image of the world to be:


formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man. The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in his selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind. Although the final result may reflect something of his personality, this does not play the same role as is played by that of his painter. All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence. Photography affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly origins are an inseparable part of their beauty.9

The painter is unable, due to his medium, to escape the appearance of his touch. Photography, according to Bazin, evaporates the human touch: photography removes the artist’s fingerprint evident in the medium of painting and sculpture. Bazin also believes that, because of the technical and scientific method of photography, the aesthetic experience derived is much more in-line with personal perception. Photography and cinema replicates the physically real without the barrier that one encounters when admiring a painting or sculpture. It should be noted however that Bazin invests far too much faith in the technical process of developing film as an objective and not subjective process. The production of film is open to that very same human touch Bazin felt paintings contained. With the birth of photography came the birth of photo modification and editing and films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari show this trend with certain scenes being coloured differently. And with digital film it is hard to really locate an image that hasn’t been altered somewhat for aesthetic reasons. I think Bazin, even if he accepted that film is often modified, would argue that the best cinema would attempt to capture reality as it is. However this position will be further explored in Bazin’s other essays and other articles concerning them.


Bazin may have argued, however, that the counter-position – that photography is not objective – incorrectly translates his proper position. Bazin uses the French word objectif, which means the lens of a camera, and overtly, in the French text, plays on this meaning. Bazin may therefore be arguing that by the objective nature of photography he means that the physical appearance of brush marks, the fingerprint of the human touch, are not apparent in film and therefore photography, unlike painting or sculpture, reproduces “reality” without direct reference to an artist or photographer. Bazin therefore may not mean objective as not-subjective but rather “through an object”. Photography removes the appearance of the touch of humanity rather than the touch of humanity.


To Bazin the process of photography ‘confers on [an object] a quality of credibility’.10Bazin explains that we ‘accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space’.11Bazin is arguing that photography and cinema communicates an items existence to us and we believe it. A point is often made here that Bazin seems to believe in the naïve position that “the camera never lies”. However I believe that this point is too harsh. Bazin uses the word ‘confers’ which indicates Bazin’s position to be that the sense of real is attached or attributed to the image – this is not the same as saying “the camera never lies”. Bazin is arguing that the reproduction of reality, through the camera, is imbued with an advantage because, unlike a painting or sculpture, a photograph is not an ‘ersatz’.12Painting, or sculpture, is a replacement for an object, a photograph the reproduction. And Bazin believes that this reproduction is treated, commonly, as if it is the object.


There does seem to be some truth to Bazin’s position. People often accept cinematic worlds without question and often photos modified, or “photo-shopped”, are accepted as true and real until people are promoted to believe otherwise – Piers Morgan losing his job over now discredited Iraq photos is a distinct instance of this. This common, or regular, acceptance of photography and films’ realism is often targeted by “viral” marketing campaigns and I am reminded of a film – whose name I currently can’t remember – which circulated a simulated, but realistic looking, office fight in order to gain surprise and attract people unknowingly towards the film’s website. It is not that “the camera never lies” but rather that we often accept photographs and films’ visual representation to be unadulterated and true (even though we known it isn’t – a psychological state known as ambivalence).


Bazin goes on to argue that ‘the aesthetic qualities of photography are to be sought in its power to lay bare… realities.13Bazin comes to the conclusion that:


Only the impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it, those piled-up preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it, is able to present it in all its virginal purity to my attention and consequently to my love.14

To Bazin photography makes us see the world anew. Realism strips bare those preconceptions which, to Bazin, we accumulate through the passage of time like dust settling on furniture. Therefore to Bazin photography and Cinema, in the realist style, is a gust of wind which blows away the dust that settles on our way of seeing. A problem with Bazin’s conclusion, that realism blows away our preconceptions, is that it moves from explanation to conclusion without exploration of the logical sequence which would indicate how realism would blow away our preconception. Bazin imbues the realist style, and photography, with magical qualities like the ones he noted in the Egyptian cultures motivation for mummification. However Bazin fails to establish the reason why and how the realist style blows away the dust of preconceptions and it seems rather, contradictory to Bazin’s intended position, that realism relies on preconceptions. Realism is not so much presenting ‘virginal purity’ but rather relying on regular conceptions and perceptions of reality – this reliance is in fact why one would argue realism is imbued with the power of truth. Realism encounters a problem as it seems to rely on “common-sense” perceptions – and those “common-sense” perceptions tend to be a naturalised ideological position.15In ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ Bazin cannot support the conclusion he comes to however he does provide a groundwork for arguing that the film is a powerful medium with a technical process of production which allows it to represent an object rather than replace it – which painting and sculpture does – therefore ensuring a sense of verisimilitude to attached to the medium of film. Bazin does go on to argue for realism in further essays and I will cover these in the attempt to uncover his motivation for his assertion that realism is the optimum style of film.



1‘The ontology of the photographic image’ is an inquiry and assertion by Bazin on the differences between film, and painting/Sculpture. On a wider note Bazin’s ‘ontological’ approach is an inquiry into “what is”, “could be” – and most important to Bazin’s What is Cinema? – and “what should be” in cinema.

2Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in Andre Bazin, Hugh Gray (trans), What Is Cinema?, Vol. 1, London: University of California Press Ltd, (1967), pp. 9-16, p. 9.

3Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 10.

4Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 10.

5Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 10.

6 It should be noted that, although it is evident that Kafka’s fiction is imbued with the personal fear of death and his physical state, there is great humor and joy even in the struggle and fear.

7Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 11.

8Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 12.

9Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, pp. 12-13.

10Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 13.

11Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, pp. 13-14.

12Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 14.

13Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 15.

14Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 15.

15See Barthes’ Mythologies or Althussers’ Ideological-State Apparatus