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[The following paper was originally posted to the Film-Philosophy: Electronic Salon. It is archived here with the permission of the author, who retains the copyright.]

Documentary Philosophy: The Aesthetic Dimension


In dealing with aesthetics one is inevitably confronted with areas of extreme complexity and controversy. This is specially true perhaps of this paper which specifically addresses from a politically informed perspective the politics of a number of explicitly political documentary films.

One may as well be frank here and confess that the tradition of all the dead Marxist cultural critics does tend to weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living. Indeed as Paul Wood hinted in his review of Alex Callinicos' Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique, the "spectre" of Stalin's commissar for culture, Andrei Aleksandrovich Zhdanov (1896-1948), does tend to haunt Marxist inspired work on aesthetics (Wood 97).

Zhdanov when he launched the movement called Socialist Realism in 1934 spoke of the "decadence and disintegration of bourgeois literature, resulting from the collapse and decay of the capitalist system" (in Solomon 237). His preferred alternative was for a literature which would

In practice as Solomon points out Zhdanovism was marked by a pathological fear of the sexual and a commitment to the celebration of revolutionary utopianism which degenerated into what Raymond Williams termed "the worst kind of cover up." The result has been a deep distrust of any politically inspired treatment of aesthetic matters. This can be seen in the rather spiteful exchange between Paul Wood and Alex Callinicos. The latter accuses the former of aestheticism. While the former replies with an accusation that Callinicos "privileges the political" and concludes "he doesn't believe me, and I don't believe him" (Callinicos and Wood 125).

It is ironic in this context to compare Robert Hughes's recent denunciation of contemporary American art as "decadent" with Sartre's a priori rejection of the same term (Sartre in Baxandall 227), or Marcuse's warning that

Today because of the legacy of Zhdanovism it seems that the haut bourgeois art critic can rush in where the Marxist fears to tread. This situation is all the more to be regretted because of the current "return of the aesthetic." Confronted as we are with a resurgence of conservative elitism (Bloom; Ryckmans) it seems that the best that the progressive critic can offer is a weak populism as in McKenzie Wark's trenchant celebration of the "vectors" that bring us the Oprah Winfrey and the O' Donaghue shows or a bowdlerized Bakhtinianism that detects a progressive moment in shows such as Rock 'n' Roll Wrestling (Fiske).

What is required here is a criticism which is inspired both by a vision of an emancipated world and a respect for the autonomy of the aesthetic, a criticism which does not simply offer us readings of the ideology of the text but which also encompasses a notion of aesthetic value. This is perhaps the place to deal with the recent resurgence of interest in the category of the philistine.

Beech and Roberts conclude their excellent discussion of the New Aesthetics with the endorsement of the figure of the philistine as a counter to the dismissal of the social in art by the new aestheticism. At one level the philistine represents for Beech and Roberts those "values, categories and forms of attention" which may ultimately be incorporated within artistic and aesthetic practices. At another level the philistine epitomizes the sensuous and voluptuous body which art seeks to tame (Beech and Roberts 126).

Again these are complex matters but I feel that what is behind Beech and Roberts' endorsement of the sensuous body is a modified or even unconscious Bakhtinianism. But the present conjuncture I would argue is very unlike that in which Bakhtin produced his theory of the carnival. That theory could legitimately be read as a reply to the Manichean and pathological hatred of the body that motivated Zhdanovism. By contrast I would argue that we are confronted at present not with the denial but rather with a celebration of the body. This may take the form of the cataloging of the number of pimples on one's posterior as in grunge realism or even be manifested by the desire to get back inside the prime body of the mother as in Damien Hirst's installations of the sliced cows. In a diverse number of ways the body still figures very large in contemporary art and theory. What is missing however is the notion of transcendence.

For Malcolm Bull, Beech and Roberts' evocation of the philistine as sensuous and voluptuous body does not go far enough. For him nothing less than the complete negation of art will do. Bull's philistine is no peasant shitting in the "Sevres, Saxon and other oriental vases" in the Winter Palace (Gorki in Solomon 235), but rather the much more sinister figure of the philosopher Socrates who resolutely bars the door to the poets and achieves "not just to an end to aesthetic ideology, but a liberation from art itself" (Bull 41).

Here the move to philosophy has turned bitter indeed. But Bull in his championing of Socratic negation is I feel offering us the philosopher as eyelet in Gaza heaving on the pillars and bringing the temple down on all including himself. In other words in his endorsement of a philosophical negation of the aesthetic I believe Bull is not being at all philosophical but rather is giving us the picture of the philosopher as bogey man.

But we need not be overly frightened by this figure. As Bhaskar has pointed out

The aesthetic remains necessary not least because it contains within it a political moment in the form of a "genuine aspiration to concrete utopianism, neo-Blochian hope and prefigurationality" (Plato Etc. 155).

In his all too brief discussion of aesthetics in Plato Etc Bhaskar goes on to outline 4 distinctions. These are

The subsequent discussion then evolves primarily around (a). Here Bhaskar acknowledges his debt to Terry Eagleton's Ideology of the Aesthetic. He might indeed have also included the Marxist tradition because as Michele Barrett has pointed out within the field of Cultural Studies the "major legacy from Marxism is the concept of ideology" (701).

About art theory and criticism Bhaskar has unfortunately nothing to say. This presents, naturally, something of a dilemma for anyone wishing to work within a Bhaskarian framework in the field of documentary aesthetics. The solution which I have adapted is to take up the work of the Marxist critic Max Raphael (1889-1952) and to try and use it to fill in the missing aesthetic component within DCR.

In his essay on the Marxist theory of art Raphael gives us an outline of what he considers such a theory should contain (Raphael 75-110). He begins by turning to the series of letters that Engels wrote in the 1890s to Ernst, Mehring, Schmidt, Bloch, and Borgius. In these letters Engels attempted to guard against the overly deterministic application of the Marxist method (Marx and Engels 390-391, 433-434, 397, 395, 442).

Writing some 30 years before Althusser, Raphael uses Engels' arguments to emphasise the relative autonomy of the aesthetic. He then proceeds to subdivide the field of the aesthetic into the sociology of art, art theory, history and criticism. He points out that

An initial step towards integrating Raphael's insights within a Bhaskarian framework would be, I suggest, to subsume Bhaskar's observations on the ideology of the aesthetic to the sociology of art. A second and more important moment in the development of the aesthetic theory of the documentary would be to attempt to outline the essential feature of the ideal documentary.

Here I would argue that the exciting possibility that the documentary form offers us is the reconciliation between the metaphysical/philosophical and the aesthetic, between the capacity of the philosophical to explain and the ability of the aesthetic to show.

Marxism and Documentary Aesthetics

One of the most significant attempts by a Marxist to grapple with documentary form is Colin McArthur's critique of Peter Watkins' Culloden (1966). The film, though generally praised and widely recognised as an immediate classic, was criticised by McArthur specifically for its failure to provide the categories necessary to understand rather than feel the particular historical event. Specifically mentioned were "mode of production, uneven development, colonialism and imperialism" (McArthur 296). The clash here represents something of the truth of Bernstein's observations that the aesthetic and the philosophical require one another. (Beech and Roberts 109).

The film is unsurpassed in its reconstruction of the particularity of the battle of Culloden. The central methodology, that of micro-history, enables the text to achieve a brilliantly successful evocation of the suffering of the Highland peasantry. What was argued though by McArthur was that the film failed to "locate the meaning of Culloden within the historico-political forces of the modern world" (McArthur 296).

Such a location would presumably have provided the basis for the audience to draw the parallel between the events that Watkins' text covers and contemporary events such as the Vietnam War.

One should resist, I believe, the tendency to dismiss this critique as yet another example of the philistinism of the left wing intelligentsia and an unworthy response to what is a truly fine film. McArthur's criticism may appear to be yet another example of the Socratic impulse to negate the aesthetic, however the underlying point is a serious one because it will I believe point us in the direction of constructing in Raphael's terms the ideal form of the documentary, which in turn would gives us the basis for assigning aesthetic value.

The point will become clearer perhaps if we consider Connolly and Anderson's film Joe Leahy's Neighbors. Here the methodology is a mixture of the direct cinema and cinema verite. Commentary is kept to an absolute minimum and serves primarily to link the sequences and introduce the characters. Generally then Connolly and Anderson strive to let the pictures 'speak for themselves' as in the sequence when Madang waits outside Joe's house so that he might get a ride to town to buy a coffin. The camera focuses on Madang and manages to convey the frustration of his interminable wait.

When Joe appears the text provides us with a 'fly on the wall' experience. This is a real interaction taking place in real time between the rich Joe Leahy and his impoverished and resentful neighbor. We feel Madang's humiliation just as later on we live Toombul's bitterness and anguish as he trudges behind the clapped out, broken down truck that Joe Leahy had given him to compensate him for the value of the land that he had sold to Joe so that the latter might begin a plantation. As we watch the truck blow smoke over Toombul we sense the truth of Madang's metaphor that Leahy had given Toombul his "old underpants."

However what we lack is the metaphysical framework which will complete the aesthetic experience and enable us to generalize to other contexts marked by the same dialectical configurations of core-periphery, combined and uneven development and master-slave. In other words the central failure of this film is that it does not explore relationality, that is, the reality of the context it is concerned with.

The film hints at but does not give us the means to grasp the relationship between plantationism and indigenous farming. Yet it just this framework that Cecil Holmes, the Marxist filmmaker, is able to provide in "Four Faces of New Guinea." Nowhere in Connolly and Anderson's brilliant Trilogy on Papua New Guinea is there anything comparable to the intellectual clarity and specificity of the following:

In his short piece on New Guinea, Holmes is able to both show and say, to convey something of the drama of the lives of the four characters he presents while also giving us an intellectual framework with which to apprehend the why's of that drama. What is crucial to grasp in this context is that if the film maker chooses not to provide such a framework or totalisation of the experience of his characters then the viewer can be left in the grasp of the dominant ideological framework.

Specifically it has been my experience in teaching Joe Leahy's Neighbors that my students responded to the film with the notion that it constituted a statement about the universality of human greed. Some students were even able to go from this belief to argue that Australia gave too much in foreign aid to Papua New Guinea. What is happening in this instance is the failure of the film to challenge the prevailing mode of thinking about the world. How this mode of thought works is well explained by Ollman in his reflections on his own pedagogical practices and the responses of his students in his course on Marxism.

Like most Americans, they (the students) slide in their thinking from the individual to 'everybody' without passing through the mediation of particular groups. Thus for, example, when responsibility for an act goes beyond its actual perpetrator, everyone is said to be guilty. This is the logic (if not the politics) behind Billy Graham's request that we all pray to be forgiven for the sins of My Lai and Watergate, a request that most people can only deny by upholding the equally absurd position that Calley and Nixon are solely responsible (Ollman 128-129).

My criticism then of Joe Leahy's Neighbors is that it fails to live up to the potential of the documentary form to provide the moment of the unity of the philosophical and the aesthetic. Just such a unity is essayed, successfully in my opinion, in Joris Ivens' Indonesia Calling when we are given by means of cartoons a brief but explanatorily adequate account of the meaning of 'imperialism.'

I have attempted to project through the notion of the ideal documentary form the possibility of the unity of philosophy and the aesthetic. Here in some ways I am repeating Nietzsche's call for a resolution of the traditional enmity between philosophy and aesthetics, between Socrates and Homer in the utopian figure of a Socrates who practises music, an Odysseus who can safely sing along with the Sirens (Bull 38).

I am also echoing the Nietzschean endorsement of Stendhal's view of art as "une promesse de bonheur" rather than the Kantian view of art as being "without interest" (Nietzsche 135). It is art's capacity to prefigure other possibilities and to resist the present and the actual that gives it, I believe, its radical potential especially in a world where we are assured everywhere everyday in the media that "there is no alternative."

Works Cited

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Copyright © 1998 Gary MacLennan

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