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"You Never Had a Camera Inside My Head": The Masculine Subject of the Postmodern Sublime

From: Criticism
Volume 45, Number 1, Winter 2003
pp. 75-87 | 10.1353/crt.2003.0030

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Criticism 45.1 (2003) 75-87

1. Introduction:
Beyond Ontology and Epistemology

DAVID BORDWELL ONCE OBSERVED usefully that every film theory implies an ontology, an epistemology, and an aesthetics. Though true, historically the three branches of film theory have not received equal attention. For roughly the first seventy-five years after the invention of cinema, film theorists were understandably preoccupied with the nature of the new medium, that is, with questions of ontology (Qu'est-que c'est le cinéma, indeed); for the last twenty-five years, the focus has been on the relationship between the spectator and the cinematic text or apparatus, that is, on questions of epistemology. Questions of aesthetics have consistently languished in the background, implicit at best. An apparent exception, such as Bazin's famous long-take aesthetic, for example, was more a stylistic preference (growing out of a realist ontology, in this case), than a full blown aesthetic, while the aesthetic hinted at in such articles as "The Virtues and Limitations of Montage" remained unacknowledged and undeveloped. Eisenstein presents a more complicated case. Nevertheless, it is possible to argue that even for Eisenstein the question of ontology ("Cinematography is, first and foremost, montage" ) both temporally and logically preceded questions of aesthetics.

The major exception, in classical film theory, to the relative neglect of aesthetics was Hugo Munsterberg's The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, which viewed both the ontology and the epistemology of the cinema through the lens of Kantian aesthetics. While subtly influenced by Kant's analytic of the sublime, Munsterberg took as his express point of departure Kant's analytic of beauty, which he embraced more or less uncritically as presenting a true account of aesthetic value. Among contemporary theorists, Slavoj Zizek has embraced the Kantian sublime as a measure of aesthetic value. According to Zizek, "the sublime is an object in which we can experience . . . [the] permanent failure of the representation to reach after the Thing . . . the Sublime is therefore the paradox of an object which, in the very field of representation, provides a view, in a negative way, of the dimension of what is unrepresentable." The value of the sublime object, then, lies in its privileged capacity to represent lack, understood by Zizek as castration and pure negativity.

The following, though intended to rekindle an interest in Kantian aesthetics among those who study cinematic texts and images, departs from both Munsterberg and Zizek in that it looks to Kant not as a true account of aesthetic value, but rather as a useful account of how the aesthetic is understood in modern and postmodern Western culture. Accordingly, I analyze the commitments to the sublime of Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998) not in order to demonstrate the film's aesthetic value but, rather, to shed light on the kinds of political and social discourses the film participates in. My premise is that understanding films as aesthetic projects, as pursuing particular aesthetic goals, is essential to understanding their historical meanings and effects.

2. The Kantian Sublime

Jean-Francois Lyotard has suggested that "the sublime is perhaps the only mode of artistic sensibility to characterize the modern." Offering pleasure-in-impotence, the sublime experience consists of the pleasurable contemplation of the terrifying. As Kant explained it, to experience beauty is to take pleasure in the fact that the world reflects the order of our minds. To experience the mathematical sublime, by contrast, is to take pleasure in the fact that the world does not conform to the order of our minds, indeed, that it overreaches our minds and the ability of our imaginations to bear expressive witness to it (91, section 23). In the experience of the dynamical sublime, the subject oscillates between two apparently contradictory sensations: pain caused by the recognition that we are impotent before the overpowering forces of nature, followed by the pleasure of imagining ourselves selflessly indifferent to matters of personal safety and, therefore, capable of moral action (111-12, section 28). In an experience involving both pleasure and pain, we imaginatively place ourselves in harm's way in order to transcend our fears and, thus, take pleasure in our identities as moral beings, capable of acting out...

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