The ‘return’ to Romanticism in the recent consideration of modernist cinemas (see Richard Suchenski, Projections of Memory: Romanticism, Modernism, and the Aesthetics of Film; Daniel Morgan, Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema) can be taken as a way to frame the apparent contradictions in the work of a number of key figures: the revolutionary cinema of Jean-Luc Godard seems at odds with the seeming reactionism of a sanctification of natural beauty in his ‘late’ works. The strict materialism of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, in its turn, gave way to reflections on the necessity of myth and utopian ideals in the politicization of art. And although the cinema of Marguerite Duras is characterized by a destructive negativity, her films exhibit a minute attention to material presence. We believe that the same contradictions that characterize these works can be found in the films of a number of contemporary filmmakers - Chantal Akerman, Abbas Kiarostami, Hong Sang-soo, Wang Bing, Lav Diaz, Albert Serra etc. - allowing us to align them with the project of aesthetic modernism. It is our contention (one we share with Nancy, Lacoue-Labarthe, Rancière, J.M. Schaeffer and others) that this project can indeed best be approached by considering its romantic undercurrent. 

Utopian drive

Romanticism’s attentiveness to the crumbling of a pre-existing concept of unity or wholeness gave birth to both a strong sense of nostalgia and a utopian drive, sanctifying art in particular as the domain for redemption. In many ways this romantic impulse has survived the modern and postmodern eras. The aspiration of Romanticism towards a renewed sense of totality characterizes the Revolutionary era that has become quasi synonymous with modernity. The drive for political renewal, in its most utopian forms, often found inspiration in older or recreated myths of community. On the other hand, there is the destructive, anarchist desire for complete societal transformation and the blank slate. Constant in both positions is the extreme scepsis towards the instrumental use and the inherent ideological violence of language. The worn-out, corrupted language of utility and rationality is contrasted to an Edenic, ‘transparent’ language, closer to music and poetry; in the early theoretization of cinema this Rousseau-ian suggestion for linguistic renewal was formulated in the guise of the ‘redemptive’ or ‘revelationist’ image (Epstein, Kracauer, Balazs, Benjamin). 

Poetic insurrections

These societal and ideological movements that followed the Romantic movement in its contradictory conceptualizations - idealist and materialist, restorative and revolutionary - have also shaped various genealogical lines of aesthetics in cinema, which logically occurred in tandem with similar developments in other art forms. Central to all these ‘poetic insurrections’ is a purification of means, a constant self-problematization that wants to free art from its externally imposed restrictions. Aesthetic emancipation may arise through the blending of genres, the breaking of convention, or the reduction of the artwork to its pure materiality; through the attempt to free cinema from ideological subservience via deconstructive reflexivity (Godard) or ascetic literalism (Huillet-Straub). In many works, the purification of means and the resulting aesthetics of negativity or poverty, establishes a connection between the mystical and the revolutionary (as in Mallarmé). In others, the refusal to resort to existing myths, fueled by a profound language skepticism, tries to hold on to the moment of negativity and exclude it from any dialectical progression (Duras, Akerman). On still other occasions, filmmakers have seemed to follow visionary romantic poetry (Novalis, Rimbaud) in attributing a ‘revelationist’ potential to cinema, while at the same time making key features of formal ellipsis and fragmentation (Bresson, Kiarostami). Inversely, a totalizing movement can be discerned, a search for the ‘whole’ of relations through kaleidoscopic works that are held together by myth (as in Proust and Joyce), as becomes apparent in the work of Rivette and Schroeter. A more ‘realist’ totality, as found by Lukács in Balzac, finds its equivalent in late modern cinema in the aesthetic re-organization of the sensible and the extrapolation of the historical particular to the whole in the ‘epic’ cinemas of Wang Bing and Lav Diaz. 

Focal points

We invite papers that address these romantic legacies according to these three axes or focal points: totality, infinity, negativity. 

These correspond to what we feel to be three key genealogical lines in the history of modern cinema: 

  1. reductive aesthetics and negativity; 
  2. revelationist aesthetics and mysticism;
  3. the aspiration towards totality and the persistence of myth. 

We encourage contributions that take an interdisciplinary and genealogical approach to film aesthetics. 


Proposals may address but are not limited to the following: 

  • The cinema and aesthetics of Jean-Luc Godard, Marguerite Duras, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Werner Schroeter, Jacques Rivette, Chantal Akerman, Eric Rohmer, Abbas Kiarostami, Wang Bing, Lav Diaz, Hong Sang-Soo, Albert Serra (non-exhaustive list). 
  • The contemporaneity of contradictions: materialist and idealist, reactionary and revolutionary, Catholic and Marxist, realist and modernist, pessimism and utopia; fragmentation and totality, mystic solemnity and playful irony, and so on. In which ways do these contradictions underlie contemporary film aesthetics in spite of their apparent theoretical inconsistency? 
  • Parallel developments: the entwinement of film aesthetics with art criticism, philosophy, literature and other artistic disciplines. We welcome papers that take this shared heritage and the transitions between these disciplines as their starting point to reassess the aesthetics of contemporary cinema. 
  • Genealogies: How did key ideas such as infinity, totality, negativity, and so on, enter the aesthetics of cinema? We are looking forward to new insights into the history of these ideas as they might advance unexpected ways of reading, seeing and understanding contemporary film aesthetics. 
  • Aesthetics and Politics; Politics and Aesthetics: Both the socio-political background of cinematic practices and politically engaged aesthetics - as well as the often paradoxical relation between the two - require our attention. How do these aesthetics make visible the covert persistence or revival of seemingly marginalized conceptions of art, which, upon their reinscription in contemporary contexts, give way to new interpretations of the aims and utopian claims that characterized them? 

Proposal submissions 

  • EXTENDED DEADLINE: Proposals for paper presentations can be sent to poeticinsurrections.conference@uantwerp.be by the 15th of September 2021
  • Please also include a 300 word abstract and a short bio. 
  • Acceptance will be announced by the end of September 2021.