The Ethics and Politics of Negation: the Postdramatic on Screen
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The Ethics and Politics of Negation:
the Postdramatic on Screen

The Ethics of Spectatorship and the Postdramatic

On June 22, 2008, in a television interview with Alexander Kluge, the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke was asked to explain his ethical approach to filmmaking. His response was that the prerequisite for making films ethically lies in a filmmaking practice that takes the spectator seriously and stimulates the viewer’s imagination. Haneke’s raison d’être is grounded in the idea that unlike literature, film runs the risk of restricting people’s imagination by showing and clarifying everything. As he says, “one ought to work against this wherever possible…Film, like any other art, should produce a dialogue, not a monologue. Omitting explanation is one of the many ways of inspiring the viewer’s imagination.”

Haneke’s argument provides a point of entry into thinking about cinema and ethics through the postdramatic lens; according to Hans-Thies Lehmann, the fundamental principle of postdramatic representation is the negation of strategies of dramatic concreteness and the Hegelian view of drama as the conflict of moral attitudes. The postdramatic resists the “Wholeness” of dramatic art and valorizes the idea of representation as a process; it postpones the production of meaning and this is an ethical representational approach, because it negates uniform interpretations and asks the audience to co-produce meaning rather than endorse predetermined conclusions (Postdramatisches 246).1 As also mentioned by Haneke, omitting explanation can be an ethical, but also a political act. Both Haneke’s and Lehmann’s comments recall critical theory’s privileging of an aesthetics of negation. From Adorno’s idea that authentic art does not simply produce “messages” to be consumed but is committed to an aesthetics of “enigmaticalness” and “determinate negation” (129), to Alexander Kluge and Oscar Negt’s idea that “the domain of the irrational” in art is “the domain of protest,” there is a late Marxist tradition that privileges aesthetic negation as the sine qua non of social critique (239). The ethical implications of such an approach rest on the refusal to reproduce a reified reality and the desire to activate feelings of protest – what Kluge and Negt name “the antirealism of feelings” that assist individuals in renouncing a “reality that injures” them (414). [End Page 155]

Such a valorization of aesthetic negation sits at the antipodes of the Cultural Studies turn to universalizing moral questions about the representations of the other, and the exploration of ethics in cinema via methodological approaches proposed by analytical philosophy. Activating a dialogue between the viewer and the object is a modus operandi that sits uneasily with the normative reproduction of moralist assertions and the unresponsive consumption of ideas. Yet recent work in film studies in the area of the ethics of representation seems to be content with more conventional, monological narratives and approaches to the question of cinema as a medium of ethical thinking.2 The determining context for much of this work is the understanding of representation as a communication model. David Bordwell aptly explains that such a model (and let me stress that he does not endorse it) presupposes, “that the plans and intentions of the filmmaker shape the movie, which becomes a vehicle for an embedded content” (Bordwell, “Part-Time Cognitivist” 1-2).

Telling in this respect is the work of the moral philosopher Berys Gaut. Gaut goes to great lengths to explain the potential ethical benefits of the audience’s identification with either positive characters in a film or characters who might be deluded or mistaken but whose counter-example can help the audience “grow emotionally.” Gaut surmises that identification with characters can “teach an audience about correct emotional responses” (69). Ethics in this school of thought is invoked in a manner that does not reflect on the reduction of spectatorial labor to a reception of “correct values.” Such nuances are also overlooked by Noël Carroll, who has recently offered an analysis of the tropes and the emotional strategies employed by narratives aiming to overcome biases against homophobia or racism in order to produce moral change. The examples put forward by Carroll are the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and the film...