Aesthetics & Identity in Blade Runner

Preface • The Gothic : Introduction • Gothic Aesthetic Techniques • Transgression and AbjectionTerror, Horror and the SublimeThe Gothic and the PostmodernBlade Runner : IntroductionPower in Blade RunnerReality in Blade RunnerDeath in Blade RunnerIdentity in Blade RunnerRestorationConclusionWorks Cited


Gothic Aesthetic Techniques

The primary techniques of the Gothic, as identified by Beville and Botting, are excess, transgression, reversal and inversion, and the aesthetic effects of the sublime and of terror.

The tropes of the Gothic, such as the castle, the monster, and the transgressions of accepted behaviour, are not merely empty conventions or ornaments. The Gothic accesses and exposes the fears and concerns of the times through its devices (Beville 55). In addition, ‘Gothic stylistic conventions … [are] derivative of the Gothic‘s concern with terror and with encountering the unpresentable in sublime experience’ (9). They induce the sublime and terror; they serve to allude to the unpresentable which offers to expand our perception.

Transgression and Abjection

Julia Kristeva‘s concept of abjection is relevant in relation to Gothic transgression. The abject is that which transgresses and consequently exposes the fragility of the boundaries, distinctions and definitions upon which we rely to maintain (the idea of) order and coherence. The abject is a form of the terrible from which we cannot escape and to which we are drawn nonetheless. Beville explains the concept thus: abjection embodies ‘the contradictions and ambiguities of our beings’ which impede subject knowledge and the creation and maintenance of coherent identity (Beville 39). Beville recognises the connection of the abject to the sublime (41).

The characters of Dracula and Frankenstein‘s monster are examples of transgression and abjection. We are simultaneously fascinated and repelled by them. Dracula transgresses the boundaries of life and death, man and beast, human and inhuman. He defies natural and moral laws and cultural and national borders. He transcends time. He respects no boundaries; he implies their fragility or non-existence. In relation to the replicants of Blade Runner, Frankenstein‘s monster becomes particularly interesting. He is beyond the scope of the distinctions of human and inhuman, natural and unnatural; his transgressions threaten human existence or, rather, the sanctity and privilege which is human existence, the very distinction of humanity. This becomes a source of terror, but also asks us to re-assess the relevance, value and validity of these boundaries.

Terror, Horror and the Sublime

Edmund Burke describes the sublime experience as ‘the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling’ (36). It is a form of astonishment; it ‘is that state of the soul, in which all motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it’ (53).

Burke names a number of species of sublime sentiment, such as the natural sublime, which is the response to the splendours of nature, or the effects of contemplating infinity or eternity, but, of all the sources of the sublime, terror, in one form or another, is involved: ‘Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime’ (36).

Thus terror and the feeling of pain, or the prospect of these two, combined with an intense and focused state of being and mind in which the sublime object fully occupies the mind whilst denying understanding of it, are central to Burke‘s concept of the sublime.

Ann Radcliffe further develops Burke‘s concept in observing the benefits and attraction of terror and by differentiating between horror and terror. Horror is a form of terrible astonishment which allows for no other feelings, but which does not affect us for long. Terror, on the other hand, awakens the senses to ‘a higher degree of life’ and ‘expands the soul‘. Its effects linger long on the mind and stir ‘deep and solemn feelings’ (150). While terror makes us feel forlorn and melancholy, we welcome it, that ‘awful being that draws near‘, with trembling curiosity and expectation. We want its effect. We want ‘to indulge in that strange mixture of horror, pity, and indignation’ (148).

Thus Radcliffe associates a delight or pleasure with terror, in addition to pain, and identifies a promise to expand and intensify experience in the suspended state of terror.

Jean-Francois Lyotard further identifies the mechanics of pain and pleasure in the sublime sentiment and, in addition, its derealising value. Lyotard‘s sublime is the response to an unpresentable idea which demands to be put into a sensible form, but cannot.

The sublime sentiment, according to Lyotard, provides both pleasure and pain, or rather it is a pleasure derived from pain. The sublime takes place when we recognise that we are incapable of giving an idea, concept or feeling a sensible and adequate form, that we cannot present it. The realisation of the inadequacy of our imagination and ability to present is painful. That we can conceive the idea, that reason exceeds the presentable, provides pleasure (‘Answering’ 43).

Lyotard asserts that the sublime is beyond the beautiful, which is an experience of pleasure alone and determined by universal taste, and beyond taste in that it prevents the formation of taste which is when we are able to combine the faculties to conceive and to present (43).

Lyotard‘s unpresentable idea expresses what cannot be expressed. It demands to be addressed whilst challenging and straining the limits of perception. It cannot be determined by existing criteria, genres or discourses. It offers no knowledge about reality nor can it even be considered real, because it cannot be presented. Thus the sublime experience is entirely subjective, unrelated to other concepts or values. Therein lies its derealising value; it is beyond the scope of existing knowledge and, thus, defies it to expand. It demands that the rules are changed or that new be invented to accommodate it (46).


© 2010, 2011, 2012, 2019 Kirstin Sørensen

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