The Joys of Violence – Conference Schedule
10.00 – 10.30 Introduction
Professor of English Literature, UiT The Arctic University of Norway
10.30 – 12.00 Theorizing the Joys of Violence
On the Joys of Violence
Professor of English Literature, University of Uppsala
There is nothing joyous about violence, is there? Sociologists have established that in most any given population, only a small minority are good at violence. Most people, given a potentially violent situation, are too afraid to do anything about it. Over the last century or so, there has developed in the academic and intellectual world what I elsewhere called a ‘philosophic loathing of violence’. And yet most of us in the developed world, from North America to Japan, have become extremely adept at being entertained by violence. The evidence ranges from video games to blockbuster films. In this paper I wish to explore some dimensions of our aptitude for enjoying simulated violence, with special reference to slapstick comedy. A prominent thesis circulating today is that culture teaches us to enjoy seeing the pain of others. I propose an opposite thesis, about which slapstick has much to inform us. What we enjoy is not seeing the pain of others; what we enjoy is violence without serious consequences. Freud developed the idea a long time ago; and I follow Freud in accounting for the difference between ‘tendential’ and ‘non-tendential’ humour – to which can also be added (though slapstick rarely has much to say about it) the difference between tendential and non-tendential tragedy.
The Parasitic Joys of Violence
Professor of Philosophy, University of Vienna
The discourse of violence is fraught with various aporias. Most widely known is the truly vicious circle of violence and counter-violence. This correlation attests to a profound aporia since the parts of this circle are not simply tied to each other as opposite, incongruent counter-parts, or exclusive determinations. Most disconcerting is the fact that the discourse of order (and the legitimate counter-violence that it entails) is parasitic upon (imaginations of) disorder. The unruly, disorderly, etc., thus functions as the “originary supplement” of order, providing it with the “raw material” to keep the fabrics of ordering alive. In light of this insight, I hypothesize that this parasitic relationship is epitomized most clearly in our practices of representing violence and the fascination that these frequently entail: violence thus viewed appears as the ambiguous “tremendum fascinans,” embodying the kind of “negative transcendence” that our social orders cannot do without. The joys we cannot but derive from the poetic imperative of symbolically appresenting this “other of reason,” thus testifies to the said intertwining that links our moral condemnations of violence to our existential incapacity to escape it. The question, in the last analysis, thus amounts to whether or not representations of violence are possible that fall not prey to its parasitic logic, but can halt it, thus opening spaces of lesser violence which do not fall prey to any imaginations of some “final solution” to an assumedly monolithic problem of violence.
12.00 – 13.00 Lunch
13.00 – 15.15 Word and Image
Commemorating the Joys of Violence in The Stroop Report
Associate Professor in German and Jewish Studies, Washington University
On May 16, 1943, the final day of the month-long Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, whereby the violent National Socialist effort to transport the remaining Jewish ghetto population to the killing center at Treblinka was met with armed revolt by beleaguered ghetto internees, SS commander Jürgen Stroop and his staff assembled a memento album entitled Es gibt keinen jüdischen Wohnbezirk in Warschau mehr! (“There is No Longer a Jewish Quarter in Warsaw!”). Comprised of daily military reports documenting the German military response to the uprising, several dozen photographs depicting combat and captured ghetto fighters and residents, and a narrative summary, the album (known today generally as The Stroop Report) was compiled as a commemorative souvenir for Heinrich Himmler (who himself planned the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto as a birthday present for Hitler). Employing a lexicon of bureaucratic inventory and military conquest, The Stroop Report frames the narrative of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as one of glorious triumph and German valiant self-sacrifice for the racial hygiene of the nation. It thus extols the German brutal suppression of the revolt, which officially ended when Stroop personally activated the explosives that detonated the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, not only as an act of German military vitality and prowess but also as the ecstatic execution of violence toward a perceived mortal enemy.
Readings of The Stroop Report by scholars of literature and culture have tended to focus principally on the photographs included in the album, particularly the iconic photograph that depicts the capture of a young Jewish boy. However, fewer critics have investigated the report’s narrative or the relationship between media within the album. My presentation will attempt to fill in this gap in the scholarship by closely analyzing the text as well as the interaction between text and image. In particular, I will investigate the ways in which The Stroop Report celebrates violence in a bureaucratic and military idiom along with the means by which it produces its joy through strategies of narrative and ideological closure.
Alan Moore at the End of the World
Professor of English, Royal Holloway
Alan Moore is a major contemporary British writer: perhaps the world’s leading writer of comics and graphic novels, credited with revolutionising the medium; the ‘original writer’ for several major science fiction or historical (or, in one case, both) films; the author of a widely-reviewed experimental novel, Jerusalem (2016) and a major (counter-) cultural figure. As one might expect, a great deal of his work in comics and film involves violence, and this paper focusses on significant aspect of this, a major theme in his work: the destruction of the world.
In the world of the Superhero, of course, the end of the world is a constant threat (super villains, aliens, mad gods, science gone wrong etc). But one notable characteristic of Moore’s work is how often the world does, in fact end. (“Do it?” asks the antagonist of Watchmen, “Dan, I’m not a Republic Serial villain. Do you seriously think I’d explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting the outcome? I did it thirty-five minutes ago”.)
In his earlier work, Moore plays the destruction of the world for laughs, or – like most superhero fare – to raise the dramatic stakes. However, as his work progresses over his career, the apocalypse takes on a range of different and more revealing roles: political, theological, spiritual. The apocalypse becomes less about destruction and more about revelation, and comes to signify authenticity and even, in his work Promethea, obsessed by the apocalypse, joy. However, apart from exploring the role of world-ending violence in a major contemporary writer, this paper also asks: did Alan Moore write comics that are obsessed with endings or did comics – that are obsessed with endings (super villains, aliens etc etc)- shape Alan Moore? That is, what is the relationship between violence, revelation and form?
Aesthetic Joy and Abhorrent Violence: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux
Professor of English, University of Oslo
Responding to questions asked in the description of this workshop, this paper will compare four passages from Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1899/1902) with a key scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now Redux (2000). A premise for the discussion is that in both these narratives, the second of which is an original filmic remediation of Conrad’s literary narrative, aesthetic features can give the reader or viewer a kind of joy or aesthetic satisfaction that, while possessed of a value of its own, is linked to, and to some extent dependent on, literary or filmic presentations of violence. After having considered the opening of Heart of Darkness – a paragraph that, illustrative of Conrad’s literary impressionism, introduces the reader to an apparently peaceful scene with a group of sailors – the paper discusses the scene when, after having embarked on his journey into the Congo, Conrad’s narrator Marlow confronts a group of blacks left to die after having been forced to work as slaves by white intruders. The two final passages to be discussed are the main character Kurtz’s report and the novella’s final paragraph, which, though deviously calm and peaceful, highlights the problematic relationship between, and combination of, aesthetic pleasure involving a kind of joy on the one hand and repulsion or a sense of horror on the other.
Identifying comic elements in the narration and linking these to Marlow’s experience of the “absurd,” the paper proceeds to argue that, effectively exploiting and combining constituent elements of filmic narrative, Coppola also creates absurd and comic effects that, particularly in the scene in which helicopters attack a coastal village in Vietnam because the waves off the beach of the village are ideal for surfing, blend with the viewer’s reactions to the execution of extreme violence. Yet the way in which this violence is filmically presented involves visual images that give viewers, or rather me as one viewer, a kind of aesthetic pleasure that involves joy. This effect is especially striking in two filmic images, both of which amount to short filmic sequences: that of the helicopters approaching the beach from the sea and that of jet bombers seen against the sky just before dropping napalm bombs on the village. This combination of effects is linked to, and in part prompted by, Coppola’s presentation of the American officer Kilgore as a cowboy figure at once comic and dangerous. A concluding point made in the paper is that while the reader or viewer’s experience of joy when reading Heart of Darkness or seeing Apocalypse Now Redux is largely dependent on, and generated by, aesthetic features and effects of literary or filmic narrative presentation, it can be ethically challenging to combine, or justify, that kind of joyful experience with the extreme violence to which it is linked, and which in one sense it seems to intensify rather than qualify or explain.
15.15 – 15.45 Coffee
15.45 – 17.15 Ethics and Politics
Morality Plays Ain’t What they Used to Be
Professor of Political Psychology, University of East London
In my research with and on political activists, the ‘problem of politics’ (my own and others) continually presents itself. Indeed, I am not alone in this. There are many scholars whose research is relevant to the social problems of their times who have written about the dilemmas which they face. In 1966 when Howard Becker gave his presidential address to the Society for the Study of Social Problems, which he called Whose Side are We On” (published under the same title the following year), he was following in the footsteps of many before him, even while he set an agenda for generations to come. But while the problems Becker identified seemed straightforward, the reality I have encountered in the field has been rather more murky. What does it mean to be ‘on a side’? Is this a question of sympathy? Of purpose? Of praxis? How many sides are there? How many axis of difference? Using data from different projects I have undertaken with political activists, I will discuss some of the challenges I have faced, and how this has caused me to re-evaluate what I am doing when I invite someone to participate in my research.
Moral Bubbles in the Spectacle of Violence: The Logic of Cognitive Autoimmunity
Professor of Philosophy, University of Pavia
The representation of violence in literature, film, history and journalism certainly encourages a reader/viewer to place herself in the position of victim, perpetrator, witness or rescuer. Violence is presented as playful, fascinating, nice, comic, just, thrilling or redemptive, but also, necessarily, “distant”. I plan to illustrate an ethical consequence that I think omnipresent in these situations. In , Woods described the “epistemic bubble” as an immunized state of human cognition  that compromises the awareness of the agent about her beliefs and knowledge: “When in an epistemic bubble, cognitive agents always resolve the tension between their thinking that they know P and their knowing P in favor of knowing that P”. In my presentation I will introduce an analogous view on the agent immunization, focused on the agent’s missing awareness of her potential or actual violence, when the agent acts on the basis of her moral convictions. In these cases I say that the agent is entrapped in what I called a moral bubble . After all when we act morally we “want” to believe we are certainly acting in a non-violent way a priori, and we “want” to preserve the moral bubble we are in, which permits us to erase the possible violence we are dealing with (a violence perceived as such by the possible affected/targeted agents). In this perspective morality is strictly intertwined with violence.
Also, when we are taking advantage of the joys of violence the moral bubble effect is usually reinforced: violence, even if presented as justified and so triggered by some reasons, is still seen as a mere result of evil, and its possible moral grounds are obliterated. The moral bubbles we live in are reinforced so that being constitutively unaware of the moral roots of our violence is intertwined with the self-conviction that we are not at all violent and aggressive in the argumentation we perform and/or in our (related) actions. In sum, we see the spectacle of violence everywhere, but, so to say, the violence always out there, involves other human beings and we can stay distant from the theme of violence by adopting a simple and familiar – but practically empty – view of it. Various cognitive mechanisms that immunize from the correct appreciation of the moral roots of the violence that is at play can be spontaneously presented, and consequently fortify the moral bubble of the reader/viewer: psychiatrization, individualization, trivialization, exceptionalization, caricature, direct fun justification, underestimation, dehistoricization, dehumanization, denialism, displacement and distortion of responsibility, euphemistic labeling, irresistible impulse, among the many we could list.
09.45 – 12.00 Constitutive Violence
Corporeal Vulnerability and Violence
Associate Professor, History of Ideas, Stockholm University
My paper aims to examine the resurgent interest in the interrelated motifs of violence and corporeal vulnerability in contemporary philosophical thinking. I will critically discuss the ethical bodily ontologies in Judith Butler (2009) and Adriana Cavarero (2011).
The vulnerable body – always available to suffering and violence – has in recent works by Butler and Cavarero become a uniting link between an ethics of responsibility and a relational ontology of human dependence; and as such a critique of the normative independence underpinning liberal individualism. This hightened interest in the relationship between violence and corporeality, a relationship that is both assumed and criticized in their work, raises questions about the implications of the images of violence in their theorizing of the body and embodied identity. Both vulnerability and responsibility are, according to Butler and Cavarero, constituted through exposure to violence. The interest in the vulnerable body as the centre of an ethics of responsibility is closely connected to the theoretical motif of constitutive violence as the very possibility of the ethical subject.?
In my paper, I will focus on the multiple images of violence at the heart of their call for a nonviolent and responsible approach to human dependency and vulnerability and argue that their descriptions of corporeal vulnerability in the context of political violence is closely interconnected to the motif of normative or constitutive violence that persists in the formation of embodied identities.?
In Pursuit of the Untamed Other
Professor of French and Comparative Literature, Royal Holloway
In response to the question: why do I wish to kill other humans?, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas proposes the answer: because others embody the Other, something which challenges, resists and escapes me. The Other is the target of my violence, but it is also always invulnerable to it: I can kill others, but I cannot destroy the ineradicable alterity which is what I hate about them. Literature and film reflect upon the inevitability of violence (I must kill others) and its deadlock (I cannot kill the Other), whilst also drawing upon the resulting tension for their power and pleasure. The key problems are posed by Camus’s L’Etranger/The Outsider. In colonial Algeria, a white man kills an Arab. Why? The novel leaves open whether the crime was committed out of fear, hatred or chance. Is Meursault, the killer, a heartless psychopath or a victim of circumstances and public judgement which cannot comprehend anything outside its restrictive codes? Are we being invited to condemn or to exonerate him, or to enjoy the ambiguity which the novel refuses to resolve? The second example I want to consider is a sequence from Jean Renoir’s silent film Le Bled (1929). It was the first feature film to be made in Algeria, and is frequently regarded as little more than a propaganda exercise for French colonialism. Its most brilliant sequence is a hunting scene, in which a rich, white heiress – who is herself being chased by villainous relatives seeking to kill her for her fortune – hunts down and kills a wild gazelle. The viewer may be caught up in the exhilaration of the chase; but the sequence ends with an extraordinary moment of insight into the pleasure and price of violence, as the heiress understands the barbarism of what she has done, and by extension of the colonial project which has enriched her: ‘C’est honteux ce que nous avons fait… cette chasse est trop barbare’ (What we have done is shameful… this hunt is too barbaric). Violence, here, is directed at the untamed Other; but even as it fails to eradicate otherness, it kills innocent others, and leaves its perpetrators morally bereft.
Violence and Narrative Agency: The Ethics of Autobiographical Storytelling
Professor of Comparative Literature, University of Turku
It was part of the poststructuralist suspicion of storytelling that the narrative form was claimed to be inherently violent. There are, however, different forms and logics of narrative, and arguably not all of them are violent, at least not to the same extent and in the same way. I have earlier discussed narrative in relation to ethics and violence by making a distinction between subsumptive and non-subsumptive storytelling (Meretoja 2018). In this paper, I will first briefly examine, in the light of this distinction, the view that narrative form in itself makes all storytelling inherently violent. I will then mention another major argument in favour of the view that storytelling is inherently violent, namely that narratives draw pleasure from the pain of others. In the latter part of the paper, I will discuss these arguments on the violent nature of narrative in relation to autobiographical storytelling, using as my example Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiographical series My Struggle (2009–2011), which raises and deals with issues concerning the relationship between violence and storytelling and which can be seen to present violence as constitutive of subjectivity and narrative agency.
Hannah Arendt and Adriana Cavarero, for example, rely on the possibility of non-subsumptive storytelling when they argue that storytelling makes it possible to acknowledge the lives of others in their uniqueness and temporality without trying to appropriate them through abstract conceptual schemes. However, while storytelling is often empowering for the subjects who practice narrative agency by telling the stories of their lives, it can have a violent dimension from the perspective of other people with whom their life-stories are entangled. This paper explores how Knausgård tries to address this ethical challenge through his ethics and aesthetics of brutal honesty – or what he calls “the banality of the everyday” – by which he insists on both the literariness and truthfulness of his autobiographical series. In dialogue with Knausgård’s series, it examines the complex interconnections of storytelling and violence and shows how the ethical evaluation of narratives and their violent dimensions is always fundamentally contextual.
12.00 – 13.00 Lunch
13.00 – 15.15 Violence and Society
The Civilization of Violence in Early Modern Europe
Professor of History, University of York
Violence is closely related to civilization. The word civilization, invented in the 1750s, is synonymous with the idea of Europe. By this term we seek to describe what constitutes Europe’s special character: the level of its technology, the nature of its manners, the development of its view of the world, and much more. The word civilization went into decline after WWII. It was freighted with notions of racial superiority. But it has recently made a comeback among historians and thinkers who talk of a defense of civilized values and the clash of civilizations. It is a question of fundamental importance because the control of violence is crucial to the very idea of modernity and the rise of the West. The term ‘early modern’ was coined to distinguish it from the middle ages by the manner in which states increasingly monopolized violence.
During the early modern period, it is traditionally assumed, we became civilized as people learned to control their emotions and manners became increasingly differentiated and refined. This growth of self-discipline was related to the social controls exercised by increasingly centralized state bureaucracies. The biological model of civilization invented by Freud remains immensely influential. But the chronology will need to be seriously rethought in the light of the growing evidence for rising rates of interpersonal violence in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The idea that violence fell uniformly and consistently in the early modern period is plain wrong. Across Europe homicide rates, for example, increased from the middle of the sixteenth century, peaking in the first half of the seventeenth century. This was followed by a very steep decline in the eighteenth century. Even in peaceful England rates doubled or tripled between late 1570s and early 1620s and did not return to mid-sixteenth-century levels until the last decade of the seventeenth. The paper explains the reasons for the explosion of violence and its decline. It explains why there were strong regional differences in rates of violence. It introduces some new theories which try to get beyond biological models in explaining differing rates of interpersonal violence.
‘Cement in their legs’: (Im)Mobility, Space, and the Aestheticization of Violence in Wilfried N’Sondé’s Fleur de béton
Lecturer in French, University of St. Andrews
Wilfried N‘Sondé’s 2012 novel Fleur de béton gives a rather bleak account of the life of fifteen-year-old Rosa Maria, who lives with her family of Sicilian origin in a deprived suburb in the Parisian periphery. Their housing estate bears striking resemblance to the notorious cité des 3000 in Aulnay-sous-Bois, where, on the 27th of October 2005, Bouna Traoré and Zyed Benna died while fleeing the police: the tragic event that eventually triggered widespread unrest in suburban areas all over the country. Using this clear reference to the ‘real’, N’Sondé locates his narrative within the very space that has become synonymous with France’s segregated society, the banlieue, the ‘dormitory towns’ and social housing estates of the at the outskirts of the capital city. The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks onto the life of Rosa Maria’s father, who once came to France to work in an automotive manufacturing plant and has recently been made redundant by his employer, which allows N’Sondé to recount the history of this planned urban space as a history of urban violence. From its beginnings as newly erected high-rise blocks of flats in the 1960s and 70s, its decay over the following decades, to its current state as a ‘ghetto’ for those at the very bottom of French society, while the decline of the urban space mirrors the disintegration of Rosa Maria’s family and vice versa. This paper will analyse the representation of different forms of specifically ‘urban’ violence, such as rioting on the streets, to highlight the complex interconnections and interactions between marginalised human bodies and the ‘body’ of the city that the text produces. Drawing on a range of frameworks produced in the aftermath of the ‘spatial turn’ in French critical theory since 1968, I argue that violence is aestheticized to fulfil two central functions in the text. On the one hand, it serves as a spatial practice, to highlight its potential for resistance against social and geographical marginalization, while, at the same time, N’Sondé inscribes it into a specifically (French) literary tradition of representing pain and politics, a postcolonial response to Baudelaire’s urban modernity.
Is Violence Tempered by Fictionality?: The Violence Paradox Illuminated by the Responses of 96 Young Adults
Postdoc Scholar in Literature, Uppsala University and
Chair Professor of Literature, Uppsala University
A violent extract from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was presented in translation to 96 Swedish 17-year-olds with equal gender distribution. They read it in two groups – the F-group and the D-group – which were told that it was fictional and documentary, respectively. They then answered questionnaire questions about how shocking and exciting they found the extract, and how they thought their reactions would change if the fictional narrative was documentary and vice versa. They also answered questions about the frequency of their exposure to violence in various media – very high, as it turned out – and questions in essay form about the effects they thought such exposure may have on a person.
The results, firstly, include the strong conviction of the subjects that fictionality shields the recipient from harmful effects. This conviction turned out to be erroneous, however: the actual shock value of the Capote extract was roughly as high in the F-group as in the D-group. Secondly, the subjects showed considerable awareness of both desensitization and stimulus to real-life violence as possible consequences of media exposure to violence. Nevertheless, they also prevaricated by not admitting negative effects on themselves and often stating explicitly that such effects are confined to people other than themselves: small children, people who are mentally disturbed to begin with, people who play computer games etc.
This provides some intriguing explanations for the persistence of the violence paradox in present-day Western societies: the puzzle that a vast majority of citizens who are fervently against real-life violence are nevertheless willing to partake regularly of the joys of violence, particularly in fictional form. Firstly, they probably assume, as do the subjects of our study, that the violence does not affect them very much since it is not for real. Secondly, though aware of possible negative effects, they dismiss them as a problem for others, not themselves.
Our conclusion is that such defense mechanisms form part of the reason why the population continues to embrace the double standard endemic to the violence paradox. However, these mechanisms reflect more self-deception than a real solution to the paradox.
15.15 – 15.45 Coffee break
15.45 – 17.15 Reading and Responding
Witnessing Extremity in Violent Narratives in Literature and Humanitarian Discourse
Professor of English Literature, University of Tromsø
This presentation uses legal and literary theoretical constructions of the idea of witnessing to consider the ethical responsibility that arises out of acts of reading about violence. French historian Annette Wieviorka calls our time the “era of the witness;” for American literary theorist Shosana Feldman, it is the “age of testimony.” Thousands of pages of testimony to violence during the Holocaust combine with a growing testimonial record from Biafra, Palestine, and Syria to create an unmanageable mass of recorded victimization. In our age, the figure of the witness has become “an object of veneration because she possessed terrible, sacred truths about humanity available to no one other than those who were there” (Dean 631). For the sake of highlighting the extremity of suffering, critics and humanitarian organizations often publicize the most shocking experiences – the most violent, most pointless acts and the most vulnerable victims. In my presentation, I analyze the narrative form of several witness accounts in light of the documented desensitization that occurs when people are repeatedly exposed to violence in real life or in the media. These narrative forms are then contrasted with novelistic accounts of political violence. I look specifically at elements occluded from testimonial and fictional accounts and how fictionality shapes possible interpretations of these occlusion.
Violence and Paranoia: An Attempt at a Reparative Approach
Associate Professor of English, Stockholm University
This talk uses the cinema of Quentin Tarantino to discuss the implications and potential blind spots of how we narrativize the moral dangers of representations of violence. I do so by revisiting Eve Sedgwick’s claim that decades of paranoid reading – what is in its less explicit forms called the hermeneutics of suspicion – keeps us tied to modes of interpretation that makes us blind to effects and affects other than those cleverly unveiled by paranoid hermeneutic practices. Inspired by Melanie Klein, Sedgwick proposes a practice of reparative reading, not as a replacement but as a complement to the paranoid mode. In the paper, I, possibly provocatively, explore what happens if we approach Tarantino’s portrayals of violence through a reparative mode. This way, the paper engages with contemporary debates on modes of reading and the oft-articulated sense in which the modes of critique and criticism common in the past few decades have increasingly less to offer us in the present and begin to explore how discussions of violence might fit into such discussions.
9.45 – 12.00 Aesthetics of Violence: Form and Function
Punching Pianists: Violence and Discipline in Representations of Classical Music
Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Stockholm University
For all its connotations of aesthetic elevation, classical piano playing has a register that resounds with brutally violent overtones. In contemporary culture, where classical music has been pushed into a comparatively marginalized position and is typically enlisted to represent a small number of popular tropes, this register of brutality belongs to the most frequently amplified ones (alongside clichés of emotionality, sensitivity, and refinement). The basis of such representations can be found in the fact that a performance at the piano always involves two forces that can be figuratively interpreted in terms of violence. One is the physical force of the musician: the piano produces its sound by the striking of hammers, and at the hands of the performer it receives a treatment ranging from tender caresses to brutal banging. But these hands, and by extension the body and self of the performer, are themselves subject to a figurative violence, exerted by a vaguer entity: often personified by musical authorities such as the piano teacher or the composer, it is the very institution of classical music that controls and disciplines the performing body down to the tiniest muscular movements. The labour of the professional musician demands absolute submission on a physical as well as on a mental level, and the institutions in which classical music is couched tend to mete out harsh punishments to those who fail to comply. This paper addresses three 21st-century films, mapping out the interplay of these two forces as they escalate into brutality and abuse: Michael Haneke’s The piano teacher (La pianiste, 2001), Jacques Audiard’s The beat that my heart skipped (De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté, 2005), and Chris Kraus’s Four minutes (Vier minuten, 2008). In these three musician’s narratives, the protagonists are both victims and perpetrators of savage violence, struggling with and against the relentless authority of music in order to attain jouissance and liberation.
‘1968’, German Cinema, and the Joys of Violence; or: the Forgotten Case of the Aesthetic Left
Professor of English, University of Nebraska
For this workshop on “The Joys of Violence,” I’d like to revisit the moment of “1968” in West-German cinema. Around 1968, film critics staged a film-political debate (largely forgotten today) between the “political left” and the “aesthetic left.” The former was generally regarded as the outgrowth of the Oberhausen Manifesto (1962), which subsequently gave birth to the Young German Cinema of the mid-to-late 1960s and to the globally renowned New German Cinema of the 1970s. This lineage—crucially traversed by the events of 1967/68 in West-Germany, which included the state murder of an innocent student protestor on 2 June, 1967 and the subsequent founding of the left-wing terrorist organization RAF—has generally been associated with leftist filmmaking in the sense connoted by the term “political left”: a self-consciously political cinema often relying on Brechtian strategies and driven by a desire to prevent audiences from easily (and mindlessly) consuming films. To this day, this lineage has arguably remained the dominant framework for what leftist political cinema is or should be—a fact that explains why the contemporary “Berlin School” has been accused of being insufficiently political. However, parallel to the political left, West-German cinema also had what Enno Patalas called an aesthetic left—a group of filmmakers that was mostly associated with the so-called New Munich Group but that, I think, can be conceptualized somewhat more broadly. Dismissed at the time and largely forgotten today, this aesthetic left, so my hypothesis, was characterized by not only its affirmation of the joy cinematic violence can provide but also the effect of its affirmation of the joys of violence, as is, for example, in the case with Tätowierung (Tattoo, Johannes Schaaf, 1967). Looking back with the benefit of historical distance, I think the film can be seen as symptomatically dramatizing the function of violence as shifting from what South Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han recently theorized in his Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power as a violence of negativity to a violence of positivity. In a way, the film plays out the conflict or tension between those two kinds of violence and, perhaps unwittingly, ended up being among the first to show how “the [neoliberal psychopolitical] violence of positivity is just as destructive as the [disciplinary biopolitical] violence of negativity” (Han). And one of the aspects that the violence of positivity manages to control, so the film suggests, is precisely the joy of violence by the violence of joy. In the West-German (film) context, at least, it was the aesthetic left that understood this better than the political left. In other words, it ironically is the aesthetic left, which was often accused of being apolitical (and is seen as such to this day) that possibly provided a most astute political analysis of the very moment when the shift towards a neoliberal control society occurred that the more traditional political left—and it did so, I speculate, perhaps it was more in tune with the different affective registers of violence permeating the two regimes of power
What I propose to do in my contribution, then, is to take a first stab at a larger project, namely that of thinking through whether a counter-historiography to the established narrative about leftist political filmmaking in West Germany (by attending to the function the affirmation of the joys of violence served in the films of the aesthetic left) might allow us to fruitfully revise the story of what counted as political (leftist) filmmaking around ‘68—and what the implications of doing so might be for today, a moment when we witness a resurgence of debates about political filmmaking in the age of the neoliberal economization of everything.
Appetite for Violence: Toward an Aesthetic of Distaste
Postdoctoral Researcher in Comparative Literature, University of Helsinki
There’s no denying the thrill and pleasure that many express when faced with represented violence, whether on stage or page or screen. Violence has been a perennial staple of art and entertainment from the piteous fates of tragic heroes on the stage of the Great Dionysia to spandex-clad übermen beating the snot out of each other in today’s multiplex theaters. Yet, for all that voracious appetite for violence—or, perhaps more accurately, because of it—many of the heavy hitters of aesthetic theory are extremely wary of excessive violence in art. Aristotle warns against plots that are too tragic in the Poetics; Hume against the bloody and atrocious in Of the Standard of Taste; Kant against the kind of ugliness that arouses disgust in The Critique of Judgment.
The representation of violence, then, while often exciting, can all too easily go too far and venture beyond the bounds of propriety and, importantly, beyond the bounds of good taste. From the perspective of philosophers of art like Aristotle, Hume, and Kant, the representation of excessive violence is essentially distasteful, arguably even situating it outside the scope of aesthetics. When a narrative becomes too violent, it tends to horrify and disgust rather than to gratify its audience, precluding any possibility of sublimation into pleasure. Accordingly, while most consumers of culture have no qualms venerating sublimely violent masterpieces like The Iliad or Macbeth, few argue for the artistic merit of the nauseating shock tactics of extreme horror like Cannibal Holocaust or James Herbert’s The Rats.
But could there be an aesthetic of excessive violence? The existence of extremely violent narratives—not to mention their enduring popularity from medieval martyr stories to Titus Andronicus to The Human Centipede—suggests there is. Drawing from a vast history of excessively violent fiction from classical tragedy to Elizabethan revenge plays to contemporary torture porn, in this presentation I argue that extremely violent art and entertainment function according to what we could call an aesthetic of distaste. This anti-aesthetic of violence seeks enjoyment from shock and disgust and prizes the transgression of conventional aesthetic boundaries, providing an enlightening mirror image of traditional aesthetics of the last two millennia.
12.00 – 13.00 Lunchtime Discussion