– Martin Kirchner: “Realism and its Discontents”

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Realism and its Discontents

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As an aesthetic mode in the early 19th century, realism, whose rise parallels that of photography, was significant in directly confronting the escapist tendencies of romanticism. Realism focused attention on the material and social world as the basis for art and literature. The advent of realism in art and literature, however, marks only the beginning of a long debate, as many equate the term with positivism—the new system of scientistic rationalization.

Trihn T. Mihn-ha argues that realism, which suggests a mine-is-truer version of reality, rather than challenging the very constitution of authority, replaces one source of authority with another.[1] The ability to assemble ‘facts’ in a realist mode, is the precondition for power over the definition of reality. To dispute this authority, however, is not to suggest that one assume a position of total relativity, which is anyway not the recognition of difference, but the reduction of cultural difference to general indifference and interchangeability. Instead, a critical and politically reflexive realism offers a way past this opposition between authoritative ‘facts’ and absolute relativity.

An ambiguous term which has been subject to a variety of often contradictory interpretations, realism can, perhaps, be broken down into two variants: either it refers to a commitment to understand and describe the movement of social forces which underlie the appearance of reality, or it refers to a strategy of representation in which objects appear ‘lifelike’ or ‘natural’ and the author appears invisible.[2] In conventional usage of the term, both definitions often overlap; what follows is an attempt to show the argument against realism understood as an aesthetic mode predicated “upon a positivist philosophy about the existence of objective reality.”[3]

For many, the term realism suggests a belief that knowledge of reality can be perceived and communicated objectively, uninfluenced by material support or personal bias. This view is congruent with positivism, the proposition that understanding of the social world is based on observable, indisputable facts that exist and are accessible outside of any human conceptualization of the world. Like realism, positivism “concentrates on the object of knowledge, abolishing the human actor doing the knowing, thereby attempting to hide the ‘subject’ of knowledge from critical examination.”[4] In contrast, a critical and reflexive approach does not exclude consideration of the subject as a determining element.

Now synonymous with empiricism, positivism emerged at the same time that realism was coming into focus as an aesthetic practice. As a philosophy it separates ‘fact’ from ‘value’, renouncing anything associated with transcending the quantifiable or the measurable, such as “the ability to hope, to take a position, to desire, to strive for happiness.”[5] Instead, it tries to understand reality ‘objectively’—gathering ‘facts’ and strictly adhering to scientific description. Critiquing this positivist assumption in objective fact, Max Horkheimer has argued that not only reality itself, but also the way in which we perceive reality is historically conditioned.[6] By disavowing the neutrality and transparency of human perception, a critical method interrogates the means and conditions by which reality is perceived.

Examples of art that manifest positivist tendencies can be seen throughout realism’s history. Art historian Linda Nochlin, for example, writes that Courbet’s realist paintings strive to create “objective representations of the external world based upon the impartial observation of contemporary life.”[7] Realist novelist Gustave Flaubert attempts to create a style of invisibility in which the author is “like God in the Universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”[8] Realist film critic André Bazin celebrates photography and film for their ability to transfer reality intact and unaltered into reproduction, arguing that the objectivity of photography forces us “to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced,” and that that cinema’s advantage is its ability to recreate “the world in its own image.”[9]

Contrary to Bazin’s assertion, however, it is precisely in the world of 20th century film that the term ‘realism’ appears oppressive to many. Visual anthropologist Jay Ruby remarks that, “Marxists, feminists, and scholars concerned with the representation of minorities—sexual, ethnic, and political—argue that film realism is an ideological construction that benefited those with power by naturalizing the status quo while at the same time oppressing the subaltern and erasing difference and cultural contestations.”[10] For those who have long been invisible from the supposedly ‘realistic’ world of the cinema, this purportedly neutral term appears as a tool that naturalizes marginality. From a feminist standpoint, film critics have long taken issue with the term. B. Ruby Rich writes, “the tradition of realism in the cinema has never done well by women. Indeed, extolling realism to women is rather like praising the criminal to the victim, so thoroughly have women been falsified under its banner.”[11] It is the apparent verisimilitude of cinematic realism that obscures the representation of women, who are portrayed as myth. For many, realism is only the universalized values and symptoms of the current regime in power.

Regardless of whether a realist work involves mimetic representation or not, any artwork or art practice that claims to solely describe or point to the changeability of reality without representing it engages in an ideological absoluteness and blindness to its own position caught in discourse networks which it can neither escape nor rise wholly above. Furthermore, despite the inadequacy of any representational strategy, the question of who is allowed representation is decisive and should not be avoided entirely. “Competing definitions of reality are at stake,” writes Paul Wood. “In a world where different realities are perceived very differently by different interest groups, […] there is a constant process of struggle against hegemonic definitions of what the world is like.”[12] Opposing the assertion that one reality exists that can be faithfully copied on celluloid, the struggle for visibility and definition of reality along lines of social position and cultural difference remains crucial.

By merely describing society, a one-dimensional realism, like positivist thought, only legitimates the relations of power that structure the status quo . A critical and politically reflexive realism, however, doesn’t suppress the ethical impulse to human emancipation from the circumstances of domination and oppression that it describes. Instead of trying to render the author’s subjectivity transparent, reflexive works not only point to the subject as a subject-in-process but also stress the subject’s ethical and political positionality as a framing agent of the interpretation of social reality. Importantly, reflexivity raises doubt as to the knowledge that is presented in the text, preventing the work from being seen as a substitute for the viewer’s own active interpretation of reality. A form of consciousness-raising, a politically reflexive realism, operating according to strategies of defamiliarization can, by turning back on the audience, estrange “the relations of power and hierarchy between the text and the world.”[13] Simultaneously, by turning back on itself, this realism can embody a gaze which is the “impulse that causes the work to fall apart […] a gift, by which the work is freed from the tyranny of meaning.”[14]

Martin Kirchner

[1] Trinh T. Minh-ha, “The Totalizing Quest of Meaning,“ in: Theorizing Documentary, ed. Michael Renov (New York: Routledge, 1993).

[2] Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 257-262.

[3] Jay Ruby, Picturing Culture: Explorations in Film and Anthropology (Chicago, I.L.: The University of Chicago Press, 2000).

[4] R. George Kirkpatrick, George N. Katsiaficas, Mary Lou Emery, “Critical Theory and the Limits of Sociological Positivism,“ Red Feather Institute, 1978


[5] Richard Van Heertum, “How Objective is Objectivity? A Critique of Current Trends in Educational Research,” InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 2005


[6] Kirkpatrick.

[7] Sara Faunce and Linda Nochlin, Courbet Reconsidered (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn Museum, 1988).

[8] Francis Steegmuller, ed., The Letters of Gustave Flaurbet: 1830-1875 (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press, 1980).

[9] André Bazin, What is Cinema, Vol. 1 & 2 (Berkeley, C.A.: University of California Press).

[10] Ruby.

[11] B. Ruby Rich, Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998).

[12] Paul Wood, Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art Between the Wars (New Haven, C.T.: Yale University Press, 1993).

[13] Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington, I.N.: Indiana University Press, 1991).

[14] Mihn- Ha.

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