Saving the World & Other Stories

Aesthetics and Politics: Strange Days

The importance of a work’s politics to an aesthetic evaluation.


“In The Republic, the arts are the appropriate apparatus for telling beautiful and medicinal lies. Children (and men with the mentalities of children) who could not be convinced by reason can be persuaded by images.”

Irwin Edman, Arts and the Man, 127


“This book will argue the priority of the political interpretation of literary texts. It conceives of the political perspective not as some supplementary method, not as some optional auxiliary to other interpretive methods current today…but rather as the absolute horizon of all reading and interpretation.”


Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 17




To define an aesthetic evaluation would appear to be a simple matter, for as E.F. Carritt bluntly states, “the subject of aesthetic philosophy…is obviously aesthetic experience” (17). Irwin Edman relishes this vagueness, “Whatever life may be, it is experience; whatever experience may be, it is a flow through time, a duration, a many coloured episode in eternity” (1939, 11). But however obvious an aesthetic experience may be to Carritt, and however basic it seems to be to Edman, its definition and how to evaluate it remains elusively vague. The definition of aesthetics can range from ‘sense perception’ in its derivation from ancient Greek, to the Kantian ‘mere experience’ of a work, to simply encountering a piece of creative art. Politics may be rather more safely defined as “the complex or aggregate of relationships of people in society, esp. those relationships involving authority or power” (Collins Dictionary), while aesthetics floats on the edge of meaning, reflecting the nature of its involvement with art, interpretation and evaluation.

I would like to suggest that as a term ‘aesthetics’ can have no precise meaning outside of what one gives it. This may appear to be a circular argument but the aim of any judgement is to enlighten and not peddle philosophical vagaries that a reader is assumed to simply accept. A piece of evaluation must define its criterion of evaluation. The desire to enlighten and elucidate is especially true when a political goal is concerned, for as politics is not a single universal movement but rather a host of different attitudes to society and individuals, a writer needs to clearly communicate not only what their conclusions are (the evaluation) but the process of argumentation too (a clear discussion based on articulated principles). Politics and aesthetics would both be meaningless without these clearly articulated principles and definitions.


It is a part of the history of the twentieth century that politics has been revealed as not simply the actions of elected officials but that it structures the very way we as individuals view and interact with the world. Jameson argues so much in his work The Political Unconscious, the beginning of which I open this essay with. Jameson engages with the idea that although some literary texts include self-consciously political elements, citing Dante and Joyce, every text possesses a political unconscious, reflecting a latent attitude to society that can be investigated and uncovered. It is not the case that every work is a complete political manifesto but that it can be positioned within society along a political continuum, upholding bourgeois ideology<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[1]<!--[endif]--> in some ways and undermining it in others. It would not seem overly contentious to extend this hypothesis so that, in some form, every product of society<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[2]<!--[endif]--> and every form of politics can be found to be interlinked.


Aesthetics has also been formulated in many diverse ways, and the process of evaluation is as much a part of aesthetic debate as the nature of art and issues of beauty. It is fairly standard to summarise that aesthetics were conceived of as filling a philosophical gap; in his two-volume work, Aesthetica (1750-8), Alexander Baumgarten set out to explicate the relationship between the material world and the internal mind: the issue of sensuous perception<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[3]<!--[endif]-->. Baumgarten’s aim was to bring human experience into the realm of philosophical study, to explore how the rational Cartesian subject interacts with “all that arises from our most banal, biological insertion into the world” (Eagleton, 19). Aesthetics is the effect of the world upon our senses, viewed and evaluated in a particular way.

After my citation of Jameson it would seem churlish to suggest that this aesthetic evaluation could be uniquely apolitical but Immanuel Kant proposes this in his Critique of Judgement (1790), where he suggests that aesthetic judgement should stem from ‘disinterestedness’, an evaluation based founded on a form of reflective thought, which considers nothing but the sensory input derived from an object: the ‘mere experience’. Political, as well as ethical and personal, considerations are therefore a subjective intrusion into what Kant theorised as a judgement that behaved as if it were objective. According to Kant this “aesthetic judgement (or judgement of taste) means a judgement which ‘connects’ a feeling of pleasure to the mere experience of something, and accordingly calls it ‘beautiful’, or ‘sublime’” (Burnham, 44). The idea that an aesthetic evaluation should ignore issues of ethics and politics because the question of “whether to attend to the moral or political content of a work is to attend to it as art” (Lyas, 1992, 350) still holds critical currency<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[4]<!--[endif]-->; Lyas cites Oscar Wilde and Clive Bell as pure aesthetes.


We would thus seem to be in a dilemma that demands resolution; for while Jameson, the notable contemporary Marxist, asserts the universal applicability of politics, Kant, the notable Enlightenment philosopher disagrees. Kant’s judgement is based around several elements; the ‘mere experience’ of a work that is to be judged disinterestedly as art pour art, the work gaining value and causing pleasure because it is beautiful. Value rests in beauty, beauty causes pleasure and beauty is recognised disinterestedly. Jameson’s theory however is based on a cause-and-effect model between the social structure and its products, evaluating a text according to the ways in which “the ideological and Utopian functions of the artistic text” (299) are distributed in regards to class struggle. I would like to suggest that many essays are concerned with political evaluations of aesthetics; Colin McCabe argues that the Classical Realist text reproduces the hegemony of bourgeois experience, Laura Mulvey that Hollywood objectifies women and Richard Dyer that a musical’s dance routines tap into the utopian desires of an audience. These writers hypothesise a way in which the aesthetic of a work - the sensory input derived from it - affects the individual who encounters it.

Kantian aesthetics focus almost exclusively on evaluating the beautiful, the sublime and genius, burying itself in beauty and feelings of pleasure without asking how the world itself, more often than not quite an ugly and painful place, interacts with individuals. Disinterestedness has been defined as “…responding to an object's appearance without the guidance of any determinate concept” (Gracyk, unpaginated), and I would argue that this excludes society as a determinate concept. Kant reifies ideas of beauty and perception into ‘rational’ categories that are divorced from an individual’s lived experience. The absence of determinate concepts results in an absence of social applicability; it is the de-politicisation, de-socialisation and de-humanisation of art and the art of judgement.

I believe, as Jameson argues, that nothing, neither a work of art nor its aesthetic evaluation, can be devoid of politics; the most appropriate aesthetic evaluation will therefore reflect this, evaluating a work according to the individual’s own politics. An aesthetic evaluation should therefore self-consciously articulate its political position, or risk the charge of partiality, allowing the specific relationship between the work, the evaluation, the individual and the world to be fully understood. It should be stated that while my own definition of politics is a blanket term for power relations, criticism of these power relations (and my belief in the dominance of this power relations themselves) stems from my own left-wing politics of consensus and acceptance that seek to undermine domination and replace it with equality. I would thus imagine an ideal critic as one who gives credence to and uses any form of politics that could begin to undermine the hegemony of white male heterosexual capitalism.


I have said that a work can only be judged according to an individual’s own politics; this is to say that an individual cannot judge a work according to concepts that are outside of her/her consciousness, for neither a text nor an individual can be a tabula rasa but instead a palimpsest of layered emergent and residual meanings. Therefore the way in which the actual individual is structured will affect the way in which the work is re-structured by that individual. For if we turn again to literature and the work of Roland Barthes and ‘The Death of the Author’ (1977) we see that a work can have no objective politics, and that politics are the result of a reading process of the objective material elements of a work. These elements are assembled by an individual (the author) with various intentions, which may or may not include a political element. Once a work becomes read it is able to be reassembled in as many ways as they are readers, each reading is a structured reassembly of the work, a projection onto the work of the structure of the individual him/herself. The work becomes a site for the individual to form a mirror of themselves and their own knowledge As Jameson himself says, “texts come before us as the-already-read; we apprehend them through sedimented layers of previous interpretations or…reading habits” (1981, 9), though this is not to say that each reading is equally valid or cannot enlighten an individual, for each text adds to the individual’s existing structure. I would argue that the validity of an evaluation lies in its grounding in the text, and one’s own personal experience that is not universalising (substituting an ‘I’ for ‘we’), which through textual attention explores a context through which meaning and effect can be shown to be generated. Politicised film aesthetics are about understanding the way in which the relationship between a work and an individual operates, what effects it has on the individual and what effects the individual may consequently have upon society. It is the effect of the way the film constructs itself, the way it organises narrative, the manner in which it provides pleasure and the impression it leaves on the viewer. It is a McLuhan-esque exploration of how the medium becomes the message.


The way in which an individual understands and orders their aesthetic (or indeed any) experience is largely dependent on their ability to contextualise it. Artistic movements that have caused outrage have often done so because they were seen to refuse to give the individual context and thus deny access to an appreciation and understanding of the work. Pierre Bourdieu’s work explores the way in which this context, the predicate of taste, is determined by class and upbringing and that taste is not the universal that Kant proposes but a more prosaic matter of one’s own experience of the artworld and academia. In a sense then the relationship between the work and the individual is a projection, an attempt to fit one’s self into the work itself, thereby assembling the aesthetic experience that is structured by the work’s objective elements but made comprehensible by the individual’s own determined sense of taste.

It is along these lines of identification that I would like to discuss Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995), examining the ways in which it uses identification and alienation to generate what can be seen as a politically charged aesthetic. For in its narrative alone Strange Days asks to examined seriously, unhesitatingly depicting police brutality towards a black woman and controversial scenes of rape and murder, during a contemporary period of huge racial discontent, going to characterise Mace (Angela Basset) as a strong, resourceful and powerful woman, who is able to a mother, a bodyguard and, by the end, a lover. In contrast Lenny is a lonely man mourning lost love, unable to handle his life and fainting during the final shootout. But the film could also be seen as a series of capitulations in the face of its own transgression; the sinister cops turn out not to be part of a conspiracy and are disposed of, the white male police chief saves the black woman from a beating, the treacherous object of desire is arrested and the film’s interracial romance is consummated with a sweeping Hollywood kiss. The implausible nature of the conclusion could be seen as a postmodern deconstruction of genre and narrative, or simply a Hollywood contrivance.

The same could be said about the most controversial scene in Strange Days, the rape of a woman, filmed in real-time using a first-person subjective camera. Rape is clearly a crime, and seen as particularly heinous, involving physical and emotional violation that causes untold damage to the individual. Scenes depicting rape have a chequered history in the cinema, Irréversible’s (Noe, 2002) extended and graphic anal rape of Monica Belucci only passing through the BBFC uncensored after a psychiatrist decided “it would not turn an audience on. Men would not be tempted to repeat the action in a subway on their way home with the bizarre idea that the woman might secretly enjoy it” (Chrisafis, 2002). Noe himself is said to hate the rape in Straw Dogs (Peckinpah, 1971) “because he said it condoned the male myth that ‘women really like it’” (Chrisafis, 2002). Once again we return to the belief that the experience of a work can have an a effect on the observer.


The experience of watching the rape in Strange Days is at best unsettling. How can we make an aesthetic judgement about this scene? We must first place it in context; the narrative revolves around Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), dealer of ‘clips’, illegal technology that allows sensory experience to be recorded via a device, the SQUID, onto a minidisk, which then allows anyone to ‘playback’ the original experience which is transmitted directly to the brain. The first part of my discussion will show why I believe that SQUID playback is signalled as an allegory for cinema, before going on to demonstrate how this allegorical reading influence the evaluation of the rape scene’s aesthetic experience.

The SQUID hypothesises the role of sensory perception in the age of electronic reproduction; commodified, reified and escapist, it is used to record porno’s, home videos that recall lost memories, and destroy someone’s mind. But Lenny is not a cinema ticket seller but a dealer, clips are illicit goods and as addictive as a drug. It is safe to say that cinema, allegorised by playback, is treated with suspicion by Strange Days. The meta-cinematic nature of the rape scene is emphasised when the rapist, Max (Tom Sizemore), forms a frame with his hands as if composing a photograph, the camera moving forwards to make the frame of his hands become the frame of the cinema screen. The perpetrator of violence is given control of the cinematic apparatus, referencing films such as Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1959) and Halloween (Carpenter, 1978). This interpretation contextualises the film within a self-critical mode of cinema that seeks to explore the notion of looking and violence, and which blocks the interpretation of this particular scene as part of a political unconscious. Regardless of whether one believes it succeeds or not, it would seem obvious that Bigelow is attempting to critique film-making.

Similar to Peeping Tom’s psychopathic killer, Max does seem to see himself as some kind of artist, recording the rape and sending it to the unwitting Lenny, the framing gesture made with his hands explicitly signalling the creation and communication of a particular ‘dramatic’ image from Max to Lenny. Max forces Iris to experience her own by forcing her to wear a SQUID that is receiving a signal from the SQUID he is wearing. This is almost a retelling of the way in which in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Mulvey implicitly describes women as being made to masochistically enjoy their own objectification. This is not to say by any means that Iris enjoys her rape, but rather she is subjected to the experience Max interprets as pleasurable but which only increases her own fear, helplessness and objectification. I not only claim that the film can be contextualised within the film criticism canon, but that it makes a contribution to a political movement: feminism.


Having established context we can now examine the way the scene works, complicating the idea of audience identification and resulting in an almost Brechtian alienation and provoking a self-critical reaction to the act of watching. The entire scene is filmed in one long take, and begins benignly enough. We are not narratively prepared for what we are about to see, Lenny simply picks up a disc from an acquaintance; the content of the clips so far have provoked feelings that have ranged from excitement, to irony, to melancholy. We notice Lenny’s enthusiastic reaction the first few seconds of the tape, “Some B and E action!” and are perhaps put at ease. However, as I will discuss later, the very nature of the subjective camera used in Strange Days is alienating in itself, and the act of an unknown individual donning a balaclava further prevents identification, a reflection showing only an anonymous male form. But the audience is directly situated in this experience, the screen goes black as the balaclava is put on, and for this individual at least, my heart jumps as he swings out between balconies over the drop beneath. A woman is then seen moving about as we look into the hotel room, and in excitement (for Hollywood generally focuses on tension and release) we wonder what will happen. And then we find out. Due to the first person perspective the filming of the rape scene is unrelenting, the camera never turns away from the fear and panic of Iris whose body is not only slung about by the unknown killer but also subjected to an unflinching gaze that the audience is punished with too, made complicit in the rape by their passivity. The violence is not made spectacular nor sensational, it is personal and on the level of individuals; one man is raping and killing one woman in real time before our eyes and we are not even allowed the mercy of Hollywood editing to relieve the burden of almost documentary verisimilitude. The only leniency shown is to the audience, not Iris, in the cutaways to Lenny and (of course) the absence of the visual violent penetration. The tentative identification that the audience shared with the experience depicted by the camera is shattered, and the first person camera is transformed from a site of authentic documentary-like experience to a horror that cannot be ignored. The entire notion of the subjective camera - an aesthetic element of the film -, its scopophilic, voyeuristic and sadistic nature, is revealed in all its depravity, and of course the look is that of a man, and the object of the look is a woman.


The aesthetic experience of the scene is one of shock, horror, dislocation and passivity at the way the camera represents the helpless body of Iris as no more than an object. If it is not be rejected outright, the experience will only make sense if at least some of the previous groundwork laid by the film has not been ignored. Karla Peterson, in her article ‘Director joins boys' club -- and it only costs her compassion’ (1995, unpaginated) does not allow the context I find significant to influence any of her evaluation, and I would challenge whether Peterson’s response is actually aesthetic, as she makes little reference to communication between work and audience, simply stating that to portray a rape in the way Strange Days does is ‘bad’. Peterson relates to her own viewing experience of shock and fear, but her following comment reveals where her evaluation falls down; “Ask Bigelow how she could sacrifice another woman to Hollywood's thrill machine, and she would probably say the film demanded it. Something had to jolt the jaded Lenny into action, and what is more horrifying than rape, torture and murder?” Peterson fails to see that the film concerns more than a logical narrative (which if anything grows increasingly incoherent), and that the scene of Iris’s rape is less about jolting Lenny into action and more concerned jolting the complacently passive audience into action. Her judgement is also denied the context of knowing that many of Bigelow’s earlier films do include meta-cinematic elements, the Chicago Tribune provides the fact that “Bigelow's films continually comment on the medium” (1995), and thus that what we experience is not all we are meant to receive from our aesthetic relationship with the film, for the intended experience attempts to recruit this experience of horror to a cause: feminism, the very cause that Peterson claims to represent.

It would appear that she believes that she is evaluating the unconscious of the film, attacking it as misogynist and offensive because she feels that it tries to create an unproblematic, if slightly uncomfortable, spectacle out of rape, and that her reaction of shock and horror is enlightened and sensitive. I would reply to Peterson by arguing that she has misread the scene out of context, and not been sensitive to the fact that the horror of the rape is caused by several interlinked factors, not least Bigelow’s consistent challenge to Hollywood norms (her involvement with what Peterson calls “Hollywood's thrill machine” has always been deeply ambivalent) and that to dismiss textual elements that clearly signal criticism of both Hollywood and the cinematic apparatus as a tool of masculinist domination shows a poor evaluation that may be political but is certainly not contextual. Peterson describes part of an evaluation; she is not so much wrong as providing a partial judgement that illuminates only part of the evaluative process.


 My examination of the rape scene and Peterson’s evaluation of it have tried to outline the importance of context in attempting to evaluate politically, drawing on influences from across theoretical schools and history. I am not trying to limit Strange Days’ politics by the feminist context in which I interpret the rape, though to my mind this is perhaps its most persuasive aesthetic effect. I believe that Strange Days can be seen as a self-conscious discourse on cinema and that part of this discourse concerns the act of aesthetic judgement. The narrative can be seen to allegorise the problem of aesthetics and value, wher the fight over the vital evidence that solves Jericho-1’s murder between Lenny and Mace (Angela Basset) can be interpreted as the difference between seeing a ‘work’ as a commodity for exchange or of political and social value, each evaluation a subjective evaluation of the value of the objective nature of the clip.


It is the opening of the film that I now wish to turn to, making the claim that the aesthetic effect of that first few minutes, and most of the playback clips, result in a stylistic disruption of Hollywood codes and an even more important aesthetic effect: the disruption of the normal codes of identification with character and narrative. I will argue that in the context of the film’s criticism of the male gaze it can also be seen as a critique of the coherence of male subjectivity, disrupting identification with the male protagonist, and deconstructing the Kantian aesthetic that relies on the universalisation of rational white male and ‘mere’ experience.

For Strange Days aesthetically allegorises the attitude demanded by ‘mere experience’ in its stunning opening sequence; mere experience can only be encountered without determining subjective factors and I believe the myriad unknowns that the opening presents us with could be compared to this. Laura Rascaroli’s ‘Steel in the Gaze’ (1997) examines Kathryn Bigelow’s use of perspective, arguing that her use of the first-person perspective shot creates not identification, but distanciation. Although Strange Days appears to reproduce the Cartesian opposition between mind and body (the SQUID effaces the need for physical experience and internalises it, allowing Lenny to leave the permanent night of LA and inhabit the past) this is where the ‘cogito’ of ‘ergo sum’ falls down. When it comes to the SQUID and the subjective camera there is no ‘I’, for in order for Kantian aesthetics to operate there must be a coherent subject to experience stimuli. As Rascaroli paraphrases, “Metz remarks that to be able to enter the look subjectively we must objectively know the person who looks” (234). The first-person camera used in the gripping opening scene interrupts identification with the luckless hoodlum not because we cannot tell what he is experiencing, but paradoxically because we know exactly what he is experiencing (or at least seeing). We are forced into the ‘mere experience’ because we cannot see the robber’s face and we do not know who, apart from ourselves watching the film, is experiencing it and what he (us?) is planning to do. No material or narrative point of origin is provided for the aesthetic experience and so as much as I am captivated by the technical wizardry of the camera, that imitates the human eye, and exhilarated by its spectacular use, hurtling up the stairs of an apartment block, I am equally adrift in the narrative space and placed back into my seat as an observer of the film.


In an almost Brechtian turn that the later playback sequences also produce, the point of view shots “produce an intentional gaze which is actually charged with a triple presence: that of the film’s body, that of the character’s body and that of the spectator’s body” (234), reminding me I am simply the passive spectator. Until the sequence ends and the Hollywood film grammar of medium close-ups and reaction shots returns, allowing us to contextualise our film-going experience (and end its mere-ness) as an omniscient observer of a conversation between ‘clip’ dealer Lenny and his supplier, the film denies the viewer the security of knowing who s/he is watching and perhaps most significantly the attitude they should take to what they are watching. The scene is presented as mere experience, there is no narrative subjectivity because there is no narrative subject, but the mere experience leaves us helpless and unable to grasp the entirety of what is being experienced.


We can attempt to understand the relationship between the object, the object’s aesthetic and the individual’s reaction to this aesthetic using psychoanalysis, an often popular, if contentious, hermeneutic. I will refer to Lacan and the mirror theory, an interpretative addition I believe is contextualised by the confrontation between Max and Lenny in the Western Bonaventura Hotel room, where space is distorted and extended by the use of mirrors. In a particularly meaningful sequence Lenny watches a clip of Max apparently raping Faith (Juliette Lewis), only to realise that two of his trusted friends (though neither have proved the worth with which Lenny holds them) are in fact role-playing rape as part of a sex game. As Lenny realises the fact of Max’s betrayal, we see a close-up of his face as he experiences the playback, Lenny then turns towards a mirror, and we cut back into the playback as Max himself is reflected in the mirror. Lenny ‘recognises’ himself as Max, the narrative drawing parallels between the two ‘wireheads’, but prompting the change in Lenny that leads to the final kiss with Mace.

To return to the opening scene, Lacan’s theory of child development and the mirror stage is an application of psychoanalytical concepts to what could be seen as an aesthetic experience; Lacan proposes that our sense of identity stems from when the pre-Oedipal child sees and recognises its reflection “which appears gratifyingly whole…The image appears to be the individual, but is in fact only a representation of the individual” (White, 346). The opening of Strange Days plays with these notions and denies the spectator the ego-based safety of a recognisable self by refusing to give the film image a tangible point of origin. As I have mentioned earlier, the act of ‘reading’ a work is a projection of one’s self onto the work, attempting to find a mirror in the textual configuration that is constructed. In this scene the gangster has no face, no body, no name, no home to go to, no narrative except the robbery and we enter his subjectivity with nothing but disembodied hands carrying a gun; there is no unity with which the observer can base his/her identification; it is almost an enforced regression to a pre-ego state that ends in the death of the ego-less entity, plummeting from the rooftops. The disturbing nature of the cinematic and perceptual dislocation created by the opening scene is an aesthetic reaction that relies on the context of an understanding of Hollywood codes of filming as it undermines them. However, the scene is still highly pleasurable. The distance created eliminates thoughtless absorption but not interest or excitement as we wonder who the man we are seeing through is and how it was filmed. I thus evaluate this aesthetic effect politically, valuing the scene not simply for its sheer excitement (though that is not valueless) but for its power to undermine our filmic expectations and prepare us to examine what we will see critically, nudging us towards the shock of Max’ rape of Iris and the crisis of identification we will face there. Mere experience, the appeal to forget context in an aesthetic evaluation, is paradoxically politicised and contextualised as part of the experience of the film, undermining its mere-ness with stylistic hyperbole that by providing no context goes on to provide a context for the film to examine the nature of experience, the male identity and cinema itself as a tool for repression and self-consciousness.


So let us return to aesthetics and the fact that plain and simply aesthetics addresses the interaction between an individual and a work, and a political aesthetic evaluation evaluates the effect of this interaction. I have argued that evaluations are subjectively influenced, but are based on objective elements that are given meaning according to the individual’s interpretation. The universal nature of the political unconscious allows every critical leap that is taken for granted to be picked over until either human society ends or, in an almost Hegelian effort, we progress dialectically to full consciousness. But until then how can I escape from the increasing circularity of discourse that threatens to destroy the order of my argument, and perhaps more importantly the stability of my very own belief that the world can be understood coherently?

I do not think that a solution to this problem could be a retreat to the work of Kant which rejects the admitted subjectivity of political aesthetics and claims to represent aesthetics as if they were universal. In his essay ‘The ideology of the aesthetic’ Terry Eagleton argues that aesthetics was always involved in politics, but that these were unconscious politics, boldly stating that “what matters in aesthetics is not art, but this whole project of reconstructing the human subject from the inside” (Eagleton, 21). Enlightenment man has been the subject of much criticism and has been seen as responsible for the emergence of colonial rule, the continuation of patriarchy and even Nazism and the Holocaust. For this is the problem faced by an aesthetics that ignores issues of subjectivity, real lived experience and politics; an apolitical aesthetic works only to subtly structure consciousness from the inside, perpetuating a culture of passive consensus and empty evaluations. I have argued polemically in this essay that aesthetics should reject its history as a part of the ideological apparatus that enforced apolitical judgement, neutering the work that even attempts to engage politically with an individual. A great man once said that the point was not to merely understand the world, but to change it. This essay has concerned not the concept of ‘the work’ itself but evaluation and discourse, hoping that through political aesthetics the works themselves will come to be seen as part of the restructuring of the human individual from the outside, a political role in debate, argument and conflict, hoping that all communication that attempts to be as honest and open as it can will move society towards awareness and self-consciousness concerning the ways politics structures all of our lives, not least of all the way we look at art, ourselves and each other.




Burnham, Douglas, An Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Judgement, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2001

Carritt, E.F., An Introduction to Aesthetics, Hutchinsons University Library

Chrisafis, Angelique, 'Why should we be regularly exposed to graphic scenes of murder, but be spared rape?', The Guardian, 23rd October 2002, G2

Eagleton, Terry, ‘The ideology of the aesthetic’ in The Politics of Pleasure, ed. Stephan Regan, Open University Press, Maidenhead, , 1992

Edman, Irwin, Arts and the Man, W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 1939

Hanfling, Oswald, ‘The Problem of Definition’, in Philosophical Aesthetics, ed. Oswald Hanfling, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1992

Gracyk, Theodore, ‘Hume and Kant’, Philosophy of Art, 2002,  , (6 March 2003)

Jameson, Frederic, The Political Unconscious, Methuen, London, 1981

Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Judgement, 2nd Edition revised, trans. J.H. Bernard, Macmillan & Co., London, 1914

Larrain, Jorge, ‘Ideology’ in Bottomore, Tom, et al. ed., The Dictionary of Marxist Thought, 2nd Ed., Blackwell, 1992,

Lyas, Colin, ‘The Evaluation of Art’ in Philosophical Aesthetics, ed. Oswald Hanfling, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1992

Peterson, Karla, ‘Director joins boys' club -- and it only costs her compassion’, Kathryn Bigelow Fan Page, 19th October 1995, (8 March 2003)

Rascaroli, Laura, ‘Steel in the gaze’, 232-246, Screen, 38:3, Autumn 1997

White, Rob, ‘Psychoanalysis’ in The Cinema Book 2nd Edition, ed. Pam Cook and Mieke Bernink, BFI Publishing, London, 1999

Williams, Raymond, Keywords, Fontana Press, Glasgow, 1988

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Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978, USA)

Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002, France)

Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960, UK)

Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995, USA)

Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971, UK)



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<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[1]<!--[endif]--> Used in the Marxist sense, meaning  “a distortion of thought which stems from, and conceals, social contradictions” (Larrain, 248)

<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[2]<!--[endif]--> Althusser reframes the vulgar Marxist base/superstructure relationship by rejecting a schema where the base defines superstructure (economic relations determine culture) and replaces it with the base as an ‘absent cause’, ie. the conditions of culture give shape to the definition of the base. Art is thus not simply a result of a social formation but society takes its shape by its constituent elements and practices, of which art is one (Jameson, 1981, 32-8).

<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[3]<!--[endif]--> Philosophers had previously explored notions of beauty and art; Plato rejected mimesis due to its negative effects, while Aristotle defined beauty as “order, symmetry and definiteness which the mathematical sciences demonstrated in a special degree” (Hanfling, 6). Baumgarten echoed the pronouncements of antiquity, defining beauty as “phenomenal perfection” (Williams, 31), but significantly replaced Aristotle’s emphasis on the rationality of mathematics with a stress on “subjective sense activity, and on the specialised human creativity of art” (Williams, 31).

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