The Tragedy of the Object: Democracy of Vision and the Terrorism of Things in Bazin's Cinematic Realism

Mullarkey, John (2012) The Tragedy of the Object: Democracy of Vision and the Terrorism of Things in Bazin's Cinematic Realism. Angelaki: Journal of Theoretical Humanities, 17(4), pp. 39-59. ISSN (print) 0969-725X


The ongoing duel between realist and anti-realist tendencies in film theory usually positions the ideas of André Bazin unambiguously on the realist side. Whatever else we expect to find in his writing – and the current resurgence is finding more and more – we should find this: realism, cinematic realism. But what type of realism? Is it ontological, and if so, is it based on a claim for the primacy of photography’s ‘analogical’ relation to the world, even to the point of a ‘direct contact’ with the physical existence of nature? Is it aesthetic, celebrating depth of field? Unaffected mise-en-scène? The documentary impulse in preference to fantasy or artifice? In this article, however, I want to argue that we must expand the definition of Bazinian realism through its sensitivity to the nonhuman. The terrain of the cinematic ‘Real’ is inhabited by a singular complex, one that includes physical space, animality, and material objects, as well as persons and events. To shift our attention to these elements and their effects – intimate as well as alienating, familiar as well as jarring and unexpected – offers another way to glimpse the Real. Which is not to say that the socially constituted world drops out. Of course, language, gender and culture are inescapable mediations. Yet they are, in a certain sense, all wrought by a transcendent human hand. Bazin’s conception of realism provides access to a space that is less anthropocentric and testifies to an immanence of the Real, such that nonhuman, objective realism is not about capturing (representing) reality in toto, but registering the fact that the human is only a part of (and immanent within) reality. There are realities beyond human subjectivity – in space, in objects, in animality – realities that we are put in contact with by cinema. Ideally, what cinema makes possible is an equality, a democratic freedom, not merely for the human spectator – to view and explore film worlds – but for the viewed ‘object’ too: a democracy of the viewer-viewed that installs intersubjectivity in the Real.

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