Introduction: Aesthetics of Violence - Imagining Realities
Issue #61, September 2002
The urge to violence is deep-rooted in the human psyche. Theoretical explanations invoke bio-mechanicism, social territorial defense, sexualities and gender construction, displacement of social anger, economic causes, class hierarchies, or other plausible and implausible motivations for violence. Many of these explanations have potential explanatory power.
However, the simple truth is that we do not know the precise internal causes of human violence. In the absence of convincing explanation, human societies must deal with the legal, ethical and cultural consequences of mass and individual acts of violence. Indeed, the range of these acts is so all-encompassing — from the violence of genocide to the violence of a concealed fit of anger — that the word 'violence' itself nearly voids of meaning.
Post-structural and post-colonial theory concerns itself with how other disciplines deal with understanding the consumption of violence as entertainment and "escape", as well as the materiality of a violent act. It does not do so in an empirical vacuum. One of the issue editors raised these issues with a colleague, a Freudian empiricist. What would appear from a neural mapping and hormonal measurements of a subject — in this case an 18-23 year-old male — witnessing a violent film? She responded that there would be a rise in testoterone and adrenaline levels, and if there were monitors on the brain to indicate increased neural activity through electro-synaptic pulses, there would be large glow coming from archipallium area. In evolutionary terms, this is the reptilian part of the brain that includes the brain stem, medulla, and cerbellum, and it produces a type of primal pleasure response.
So, in laughing terms, watching violent films is liking having reptile sex? Yes, she replied, there is a pleasure response and a pleasure drive catalyzed by these aesthetics. So then what would the neural and hormonal mapping reveal in the case of "real" violence that (being shot, stabbed, etc.)? She said the same areas of the mind would be stimulated but instead of being interpreted as a pleasure response, they would be interpreted as fear and flight/fight response in the limbic (responsible for emotions) and neocortex areas (decision-making, etc).
The mind apparently interprets the actuality of violence in in terms that are opposite to a pleasure response and cause the body to withdraw, avoid and fight back to insure its own survival. The trauma of violence are stored in the brain and actually re-configure a subject's neural mapping and the circuitry of synaptic responses, resulting in post-stress traumatic disorder, with symptoms of extreme anxiety, depression, mania, and overwhelming fear and disassociation. Yet violence is much more than a straightforward mapping exercise; it is a vastly complex system of social governance in human societies that resists empiricism.
This issue of Bad Subjects employs not science, but cultural criticism to search for an interpretive skein within that overburdened word 'violence'; this issue examines the phenomenon's representation and aesthetics. US capitalism, which has historically been predicated on the instrumentalization of violence to achieve it systemic purposes, has learned to commodify violence as a global media product. Every Hollywood action film draws on a long-developed visual vocabulary of violence, and as audiences we have cultivated tastes for the narrative possibilities behind a swift kiss of lead. This aesthetic permeates US cultural products and their sponsoring national narrative.
Simple-minded condemnations of violent aesthetics are useless; they lead to Tipper Gore-like campaigns against rock lyrics. Besides the obvious point that we enjoy a well-done indulgence of obscenity-filled music or blow-up-the-bastards filmmaking, the politics of condemnation are anti-progressive. The US right wing has staked out an oppressive cultural politics that opposes the public representation of violence in a world where the violence propagated by American policies is on everyday exhibit, at home and abroad. It is crucial both to differentiate and to connect the representation and the actualization of violence.
This linkage is what Alfred Arteaga undertakes in the issue's first essay, an examination of racialized and sexualized violence in Michel Houellebecq's Plateforme. Houellebecq, a leading contemporary French novelist whose anti-Arab expressions have been a matter of recent controversy in France, exemplifies First World narrative conventions that employ Third World subjects as the focus of simultaneous desire and violence. The essay is particularly important to Bad Subjects because Alfred Arteaga has for many years provided intellectual inspiration and friendship to BS editors, and we are deeply pleased at the opportunity to publish his work.
Andy Gross and Michael Hoffman take up another controversial European text with an essay on the Wilkomirski case in order to elaborate an understanding of memories of genocide. Delberto Ruiz ruminates on the genocide of the Yoemem (Yaqui) peoples, and how Leslie Silko incorporates communal memory into her writing.
Arturo Aldama continues this survey of European violence with a post-colonial reading of current French cinema and its persistent reliance on racialist narratives. David Sanjek explores Euro-film further with an essay on Dario Argento's giallo work; from Australia, Leanne Macrae provides a reading of the US export Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and again from Australia, Justin Shaw considers Joel Schumacher's 1993 film, Falling Down.
Juana Suarez writes on the manifestation of violence in three Latin American films concerning Medellín. Bad Subjects editorial policy encourages multilingualism, this essay is Spanish-only, and other-than-English articles or extracts will continue generally to appear without translation. Carlos Rivera's article on representation of violence against women in Puerto Rican theater appears in Spanish too.
Cheryl Greene and Zachary Waggoner write about video game violence, a medium that enables viewers to participate in the representational mayhem instead of functioning as passive consumers. Claudia Herbst expands this inquiry with an essay on extreme sex and death in video games. Bill Nerricio brings this video preoccupation into focus with a brief essay on the videotaped beating of a police beating of a woman in southern California. Completing this section on visualizations of violence, A. Scott historicizes and elucidates the influence of US imperial violence on the artwork of painter Leon Golub.
Because violence constitutes an expressive omnipresence, the issue pursues its aesthetics through a variety of media. Sarah Ramirez considers the transfrontera feminist music of Lila Downs as a source of resistance to daily racial and gender violence. Pancho McFarland responds to hyper-masculinist violence in Chicano rap, and Peter Garcia discusses the politics of the Mexican corrido as a communal response to violence.
The imagery that fills this issue derives from the European conquest of the Americas, from the absorbed experiences of violence, and from internal and external conflicts. This issue attempts to articulate a variety of aesthetic reformulations of the pain and trauma of violence. Yet it cannot pretend to articulate that experience. In the realities of violence, words and images grow opaque and fail. From within this simultaneous incapacity and surplus of speech, an aesthetics of violence emerges.