The Beginnings of a Theory of Aesthetics

My New Year’s resolution was to post to this blog once a week.  Obviously that’s not going so well.  Since I seem to be having difficulty coming up with provoking theoretical snippets, I’ve decided to start sketching out a theory of aesthetics that founds a conference paper I’m hoping to write.

The goal of this theory is to understand aesthetics as a political act.  I don’t mean political in the pedestrian sense.  Rather, I think I’m trying to conceive of politics in a manner similar to what I think Badiou is getting at with his notion of truth procedures.  While Badiou would list politics as one of four truth procedures, I think it is arguable (though I’m not going to argue this today) that underlying all of the truth procedures is a revolutionary political bent.  Truth procedures, for Badiou, offer the opportunity for subjectivisation; through militant fidelity to the event an individual, a couple, or a collective becomes a subject.  The political nature of art is its potential to subjectivise the viewer, listener, or participant.

To understand this potential, I want to argue that it is necessary for art to function as non-philosophy.  This term, coming from Laurelle and employed in a provoking manner by John Mullarkey in his new book Refractions of Reality, argues that an aesthetic procedure is not an embodiment or illustration of philosophical concepts.  Rather aesthetic procedures are aesthetic thoughts independent of philosophical determination.

I must admit at this point that I am trafficking in terminology and concepts with which I have, at best, minor experience.  I’ve just started reading Badiou and what little I know about Laurelle comes from discussions with friends and glancing through Mullarkey’s book.

In its simplest form my argument is this: aesthetic procedures are political insofar as they are capable of subjectivising non-subjects.  This capability is found in aesthetic procedures only understood as non-philosophy.  Thus far I am more or less combining Badiou with Laurelle.  I want to push further, however, and argue that in order for aesthetic procedures to be non-philosophical they must engage with themselves as mediums.

Let’s take film for an example.  There are a variety of films that might be described as political in normal parlance: Soviet propaganda films, The Patriot, Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, etc.  Political film, understood in this sense, would also include the vast majority of films made in so much as these films valorise the ideals or values undergirding particular arrangements of political economy.  Slumdog Millionaire presents a world in which anyone can get enough money to end his or her problems and win over the girl.  Che presents the values of the Cuban revolution.  Even when these films attempt not to argue for a particular position, invariably they are trapped by the situation from which they emerge.  To put it in Badiou’s terms, they are all part of statist configurations.

The key to breaking out of these statist configurations is a medium’s engagement with itself as a medium.  In film, I think Peter Greenaway is a compelling example of how this might transpire.  Greenaway, in a lecture at the European Graduate School, lays out a biting critique of cinema to date.  He argues that to date ‘all we’ve seen is one hundred years of illustrated texts and maybe some recorded theater.’  Of course not all cinema falls into this trap, but the vast majority of films remain deeply attached to 19th century literature.  Cinema rarely breaks out of this statist configuration.

Greenaway proposes that cinema must over come four tyrannies:

1)    The tyranny of the text
2)    The tyranny of the frame
3)    The tyranny of the actor
4)    The tyranny of the camera

These points are largely self-explanatory save the last.  He is not suggesting that somehow recording devices be excluded, but that the role of the camera or the director of photography be eclipsed by the role of the editor.

Greenaway’s critique is militant, rejecting everyone from Woody Allen to Jean-Luc Godard.  While I might allow a slightly wider range than Greenaway, I think his argument is important.  His films Dear Phone, A Walk Through H, and A Zed and Two Noughts all represent successful attempts to challenge what film is as a medium.  In the terminology I’m suggesting, he challenges the tyrannies of the state.


  1. This sounds like the beginnings of a fruitful theory sir, its a delight to discover your blog. But on merely a reflex, I’m curious to know how what you propose here, via Greenaway, differs from the arguments of Materialist/Structuralist film (ie. Peter Gidal, Peter Kubelka etc.) There is a hint of Kubelkian film-as-film in the way Greenaway criticizes text/frame/character/actor.. Looking forward to hearing more.

    1. Thanks for the encouraging words. I’m a bit of a dilettante when it comes to film theory, so I can’t really speak to Gidal or Kubelka. I’m currently working (slowly) on a paper that I hope to give at a conference on film and philosophy in Dundee this summer (you can read about the conference here). In the event that I get to give the paper (and thus have the motivation to actually write it), I’ll be interested to address your comment as the research progresses.

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