David Bourget (Western Ontario)
David Chalmers (ANU, NYU)
Rafael De Clercq
Jack Alan Reynolds
Learn more about PhilPapers
Midwest Studies in Philosophy 34 (1):52-76 (2010)
American History X (hereafter AHX) has been accused by numerous critics of a morally dangerous cinematic seduction: using stylish cinematography, editing, and sound, the film manipulates the viewer through glamorizing an immoral and hate-filled neo-nazi protagonist. In addition, there’s the disturbing fact that the film seems to accomplish this manipulation through methods commonly grouped under the category of “fascist aesthetics.” More specifically, AHX promotes its neo-nazi hero through the use of several filmic techniques made famous by Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. Now most critics admit that, in the end, the film claims to denounce racism and attempts to show us the conversion of the protagonist to the path of righteousness, but they complain that nonetheless the film (perhaps unintentionally) ends up implicitly promoting the immoral worldview it rather superficially professes to reject in its final act. This charge of hypocrisy is connected to another worry: the moral conversion in the film is said to fall flat because the intellectual resources on display to support the character’s racism are not counterbalanced by equally explicit (but superior) arguments for the anti-racist position ultimately embraced by the character. In other words, just as the devil is said to get all the good lines in Milton’s Paradise Lost, in AHX the racists get all the arguments. This has been taken to be a morally problematic flaw of the film. Critics lament that Derek’s conversion seems to result not from relevant logical inferences and valid rational argumentation but from overly simplistic and arguably egoistic insights (e.g., “has anything you've done made your life better?”) combined, perhaps, with a hackneyed cliché (in prison, one of his best friends is a black person!) In this paper I’ll attempt to rebut these charges and defend the film as a powerful, and powerfully moral, work of art. I’ll be suggesting that the seductive techniques employed allow for many viewers a degree of sympathy towards the protagonist that is crucial, both for making that character’s more horrific actions especially unsettling, and also for making his eventual conversion plausible and ultimately compelling. I’ll also argue that the manner in which his conversion is presented is in fact subtler than many critics have allowed: Derek’s transformation is not artificial or implausible but is depicted as resulting from a cumulative series of emotionally powerful life events and personal engagements. It is certainly true that it is not represented in the way some would seemingly have preferred, i.e. as straightforwardly resulting from a process of gradual intellectual improvement in Derek’s reasoning on questions of race and politics. However, I’ll argue that the decidedly emotional basis of his moral evolution is both refreshingly realistic and no hindrance to accepting his conversion as rational. Finally, properly understanding the legitimacy of the emotional foundations of much moral thought will also allow us to appreciate the ways in which our initial worries about this film’s (not insignificant) ability to persuade viewers through the engagement of emotions need not, in itself, be seen as a barrier to endorsing the film as a morally praiseworthy work.
|Keywords||moral conversion cinematic manipulation film interpretation|
|Categories||categorize this paper)|
Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
|Through your library|
References found in this work BETA
Anthony Appiah (2008). Experiments in Ethics. Harvard University Press.
Nomy Arpaly (2003). Unprincipled Virtue: An Inquiry Into Moral Agency. Oxford University Press.
G. B. & Noel Carroll (1991). The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart. Philosophical Quarterly 41 (165):519.
Noel Carroll (1998). A Philosophy of Mass Art. Clarendon Press.
Noël Carroll (2008). The Philosophy of Motion Pictures. Blackwell Pub..
Citations of this work BETA
No citations found.
Similar books and articles
James Doyle (2000). Moral Rationalism and Moral Commitment. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 60 (1):1-22.
James Harold (2010). Mixed Feelings: Conflicts in Emotional Responses to Film. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 34 (1):280-294.
Robert Sinnerbrink (2011). New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images. Continuum International Pub. Group.
Trevor Whittock (1990). Metaphor and Film. Cambridge University Press.
Katherine Thomson-Jones (2007). The Literary Origins of the Cinematic Narrator. British Journal of Aesthetics 47 (1):76-94.
Elspeth Kydd (2011). The Critical Practice of Film: An Introduction. Palgrave Macmillan.
Allan Casebier (1991). Film and Phenomenology: Toward a Realist Theory of Cinematic Representation. Cambridge University Press.
Robert Van Es (2003). Inside and Outside "The Insider": A Film Workshop in Practical Ethics. Journal of Business Ethics 48 (1):89 - 97.
Robert van Es (2003). Inside and Outside the Insider: A Film Workshop in Practical Ethics. [REVIEW] Journal of Business Ethics 48 (1):89-97.
Aaron Smuts (2014). Cinematic. Nordic Journal of Aesthetics 23 (46):78-95.
Added to index2010-05-28
Total downloads75 ( #17,540 of 1,098,129 )
Recent downloads (6 months)2 ( #172,576 of 1,098,129 )
How can I increase my downloads?