of Violence and Aggression
2002 NEMLA Convention
R. Batson, Union College
In a telling moment of cultural anxieties spilling onto the re-presenting stage, Paris's Théâtre du Châtelet thrust a scene of extreme, if sensual, violence on its bourgeois public, thus both re-enacting and re-affirming fears concerning French cultural identity.
Opening night, 22 May 1911. The rising curtain reveals a still figure, dressed in armor and surrounded by archers, who breaks his silence only when blood begins to stream from his hands. As he cries, "Archers, let my blood run! It must flow!", the Russian-accented voice of the dancer Ida Rubinstein rings throughout the theater. It is she the suffering and penetrated St. Sebastian of the première of Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, and it is she who directly inspired the work. The Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio had long thought of creating a work based on the martyrdom of the historical Sebastian at the hands of his lover and protector, the emperor Diocletian, and it was upon seeing Rubinstein as Cleopatra in the Ballets Russes' production of the same name that he found his Sebastian. His resultant libretto's repeated references to body, beauty, and sensuality point to the blending of those attributes between the textual Sebastian and his latter-day embodiment, the performance of Ms. Rubinstein.
It is striking to note that the most prevalent anxiety in evidence in the press materials and morning-after critiques concerned precisely this blending of text and performer, the scandalous recasting of a Christian male martyr by a Russian female actress. I suggest that there are rich rhetorical rewards in exploring another, related, conflation, that of sex and violence in this particularly sensual martyrdom, in which Rubinstein-as-Sebastian is described as being her most sexy just at the moment of her being brutally pierced by the arrows of Diocletian's archers, shuddering and crying "Again, again!"
I propose to examine these blendings -- between performer and performed, between represented male and representing female, between sex and violence -- through lenses suggested by theories of masochism as they relate not only to performance and literature but also to cultural identity. Nick Mansfield's Masochism (London: Praeger, 1997), for example, proposes that "masochism is a specific experiment with power, in which the subject dreams . . . there is no difference between pleasure and pain, activity and passivity, power and powerlessness" (ix). In light of all these blendings that point beyond binary oppositions, what is the work of a violent discourse when it is not only performed, but nightly re-presented? Does the stage become a masochistic space itself, in which the violence acted is also a violence enacted? In a space defined by permeable boundaries, is this violence "simply" performed by/on the performers, or is it also acted upon/through the audience? Could we argue that France, in these days leading up to the carnage, suffering, and capitulation in World War I, has found in Sebastian a working out of its own anxieties of a loss of power even as it seeks it?
to these questions provoked by the mascochism performed in and through
Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien thus may go some way toward
analyzing the work of violence itself, and our story of the arrow
may lead to a look through the represented aggression to the act
of violent representing.
In the first place, violence is used to diegetically motivate editing and camera work that would otherwise be considered too experimental. Thus, in the films of John Woo, The Wild Bunch, or the opening scenes of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, violence justifies artful use of acceleration, slow motion, and discontinuity. Secondly, maximum visibility of film violence is linked to a desire to see how things work and what they look like, the same kind of (sensational) curiosity that is behind reality television and hard core pornography. Linda Williams says of the latter that "[i]t obsessively seeks knowledge, through a voyeuristic record of confessional, involuntary paroxysm, of the 'thing' itself" (Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible" 49). Likewise, we look in fascination to film violence for some knowledge of hidden realities on the edge of mainstream, everyday life (e.g., inner city violence, psychopathic behavior, crime conspiracies) or of purely mechanical realities like how bodies are torn apart. Finally, in some of the more torturous scenes of violence found in Tarantino, Scorsese, or Silence of the Lambs (torturous because extreme, drawn out, shot in close up, and acted in ways that elicit our horrified identification with the victim), the viewer is wrenched from the typical position of passive spectatorship and forced to react sensorially. (Thus, again like pornography, violence is a genre that affects the viewer corporeally.) The thick skin of the viewer is punctured, the immaterial image becomes material, eliciting what directors such as Scorsese might see as a more healthy and realistic reaction to violence, although it must work against an increasing desensitization that fuels a steady escalation.
short, I wish to discuss the ways in which film violence is not
about violence but rather about film form, knowledge, perception,
and sensation, and this in itself has enormous social and political
I will begin by noting how the punishment or torture of women for certain crimes (usually the very bad ones) during these times often involves their hair. Heads are shaved and hair is cut to denote offense. Such punishment can also be seen of course in the portrayal of certain holy women, but here other more elaborate methods of torture are also depicted. Thus, some female saints are hanged by their hair and beaten, and others are often dragged and pulled about by their hair as part of their martyrdoms. For examples, I consider the vitae and illustrations of St. Martina, St. Theodosina, St. Sabine, St. Appolina, St. Julia/Juliana, St. Christine, and St. Barbara. Moreover, grabbing a woman by her hair becomes a common image both in stories of virgin martyrs and, surprisingly, representations of other "unruly" women whose stories make no mention of this detail (for example Eve, St. Ursula, and St. Margaret to name a few). Therefore, portraying a man seizing a woman by the hair becomes an effective way to communicate women's noncompliance with men's sexual expectations of her.
one concludes that the artistic preoccupation with hair is one that
is essentially reserved for female subjects, that preoccupation
becomes linked to the notion of what is feminine. If women are considered
highly sexual creatures by nature, then their hair, being emblematic
of their femininity, is also a highly sexual feature. The yoking
of this trait with violence creates a startling and disturbing subtext--one
that is misogynistic or at least gynophobic through the combination
of the sensual/sexual aspects of women with violence (much like
modern slasher movies). I conclude that writers and artists alike
exploit the cultural understandings of long hair and women's sexuality
in the depiction of holy women in order to underscore the ambivalent
nature of such creatures. It is a way of reminding the audience
that these subjects may indeed be holy, but they are also always
women and therefore suspect. Moreover, remembering the context of
the portrayals does not seem to help; it merely confuses this disturbing
view of women to the extent that the final message about holy women
is again and finally an ambivalent one.
Opening with a discussion of recent cinematic representations of revenge (including Hannibal and Memento), this paper will examine the continuing fascination both with the act of vengeance and the seemingly inevitable disjunction between private, personal revenge and public justice. With special attention to John Marston's (then popular) travesty of revenge drama, Antonio's Revenge, I will examine not only how the "act" of vengeance ultimately-to use Peter Mercer's term-may "find expression only in acting-the performance of a fiction," but how Marston's drama in particular interrogates this performance by exposing the act of (irrational) enjoyment that grounds the performance itself. Antonio's Revenge, in fact, constructs a carefully laid "reader-response" trap for its viewers, implicating them to an unprecedented degree in the "act" of revenge, only to expose the impossible conditions upon which the act is constructed.
in fact, always entails an act of what Slavoj Zizek calls "symbolic
suicide"-a transgression of the limit of the symbolic community,
an "abjecting" of oneself from licensed symbolic practices-and
is thus by definition "insane." The true "crime"
of films such as Hannibal is their forging of a complicity between
the revenger and the audience, the transference of the insanity
of "enjoyment" in the act of revenge to the "enjoyment"
of the consumption of the visual image. Both Hamlet and Antonio's
Revenge prefigure this postmodern cinematic concept of "suture,"
but with a crucial difference. For these dramatic texts both problematize
this all-too easy conflation of performance and consumption and
explore the impossibility of revenge as a socially moral act. Antonio's
Revenge, in particular, unsettles the audience's usual identification
process; by doing so, Marston initiates a critical commentary upon
vengeance that underscores the inherent incompatibility of (social)
justice and (private) revenge. A re-examination of works such as
Antonio's Revenge can thus aid in our understanding of the allure
of contemporary representations of revenge while simultaneously
allowing for a criticism of the (cynical) socio-economic forces
inherent to such representations.
paper develops ensemble and proximity by articulating what each
of the two discourses opposes: assimilation itself-for Levinas,
the reduction of the Other to the Same, and for Baraka the erasure
of difference, ethnic or otherwise. From what is opposed, the paper
turns to the highly differentiated field of proximal or ensemble
relations, not to a dialectical synthesis. In the field of relations,
aggression meets ethics-or more properly, the possibility of ethics
(which according to Levinas is all that may be met)-meeting in a
"between" that is shared, rather than a between that emphasizes
division. By moving through moments of opposition to the shared
field of proximity and ensemble, the paper seeks to avoid the violence
of assimilation, while bringing the two discourses into relation
in a meaningful way.
In the slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs recounts memories of injustice and suffering experienced by herself and other slaves in the U.S. She takes pains to paint these scenes precisely and graphically in order to "arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage.... Only by experience can any one realize how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations." The stated purpose of the autobiography is to convince a (white, female) northern readership that slavery is unconscionable and should be abolished because it causes human beings to suffer.
Throughout her work, Jacobs captures her reader's sympathy by presenting her with believable, three-dimensional characters-characters who seem sufficiently real for a reader to invest them with empathetic energy, in the manner described by Roger Sell in his Literature as Communication. If her readers are not engaged empathetically Jacobs reinforces her point by inserting hortatory passages wherein she cajoles her audience into the desired relationship with the depicted slaves. The result of this is a situation wherein the reader, standing beside the slave in an act of empathy, suffers along with him. Having herself experienced the ordeal, she can understand in some manner the agony of a slave's experience. Thus, Jacobs enlists her reader to the abolitionist cause.
I would like to call attention to a particular scene wherein Jacobs describes an especially gruesome murder: a runaway slave is recaptured and, as punishment, the fieldmaster screws him into a cotton gin. By the third day he is dead, gnawed by rats. Despite the compelling nature of this material, in Jacobs' account of it a reader is not drawn into sympathy. Jacobs abandons her usual rhetorical tools and this, in conjunction with a flat, two-dimensional depiction of a suffering slave, leaves a reader unconnected. Given this clinical description of the brutality enacted on a vaguely realized "character," a reader has no impetus to empathize with the unindividuated slave's experience. The effect of this is that the purpose of this depiction-that the reader be convinced that a human being just like oneself is suffering and therefore slavery is unethical because it harms (people like) me-is not realized. Emmanuel Levinas has argued that ethics takes place in the moment when an other appears to one and the self begins to question its right to exist. In a fit of guilt, one feels responsibility for the other, an obligation to "be for the other." Given this definition, a reader confronted with a character not individuated enough to be considered 'real' cannot feel the ethical impulse that Levinas finds basic to ethical action. The violence depicted, now unyoked to an ethical program by the lack of rhetoric and esthetic force, becomes gratuitous.
upshot of this view of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is
that it illustrates the concept that the depiction of violence can,
in fact, be ethical, if it is employed in the service of an ethical
program. Or, even more broadly: no image of violence is in and of
itself gratuitous; its value is in the manner of its presentation
and the rhetorical cushion surrounding it. As can be seen by the
close, esthetically-minded view of Jacobs' successful and unsuccessful
passages that I will detail in my paper, the ethical nature of any
given representation is dependent not only on the rhetorical purpose
of the situation, but also on its esthetic power to move and convince.
While it is significant to examine why this trend occurred, in terms of the novel form in some ways eclipsing historical accounts, what remains even more intriguing is the use of Partition and national independence as a backdrop to explore other social, political, and economic issues, which are foregrounded by these events. Partition is not a bygone event, but a contemporary phenomenon that continues to influence the politics of identity in South Asia along with subcontinent's attitudes toward interweaving aspects of religion and culture on the one hand and the relationship between tradition and modernity on the other.
Arguably, Partition and the literature to describe it are very much an attempt at reconciling problematic configurations of modernity and tradition. The events leading up to Partition and the response to it were not as much a hope for independence as much as a desire for modernity. A reading of Partition or Indian independence culminates from an on-going struggle between tradition and modernity, especially when modernity in Western terms is defined as exclusive to religious belief. Postcolonialism has taught us that this Western understanding of modernity cannot be applicable to non-Western constructs because to remove established culture and religion from the social construct is to shatter the ideological virtues of a people, who are closely attached to their customs and belief systems.
paper will focus on female authors, Attia Hosain in Sunlight on
a Broken Column, Bapsi Sidwa in Cracking India and Manju Kapur in
Difficult Daughters, to analyze how these four concepts of modernity,
tradition, religion, and culture are shown as being problematic,
fluid in connotation, but also manipulated in the politics of identity.
By looking at the conflicting notions of modernity, which are delicately
handled by the novelists, it becomes evident that one group experienced
the most severe trauma: women.. They are the ultimate sufferers
because the woman's body is constantly the site of self-definition,
which entire cultures make a site of contestation, especially within
the South Asian literature depicting Partition.
In my extended study, I examine the ways in which women writers foster, recoil from, or are in conflict with the violent and beautiful environment of American literature. Violence in these forms can represent a maintenance or breakdown of the social order, and creates beauty through its controlling impulse or through the escape of that control into the uncertainty of the wilderness. In In the American Grain Williams Carlos Williams writes of the "rich regenerative violence" that counters the "stingy" Puritan tradition, a violence that lives on, fueled by the land. Williams clearly appreciates the beauty and power of such violence, recognizing the productivity in the awesome destructiveness of violence, combining the two strands that I am attempting to separate.
Violence is often considered something done to women in literature (and in life). What happens, then, when a woman is the writer and/or perpetrator of violence, or reaps its benefits? All too often, we rely (perhaps unconsciously) on a formula that violence by men (upon women) is bad, whereas violence by women (upon men or other women) is liberating. Most studies of violence in American literature focus on male writers, and when they do consider the juncture of violence and women, they do so to expose violent transgressions against victimized women. Little attention has been paid to women writers of violence outside the concerns of domestic abuse and rape. And so, I propose a new investigation of the intersections of American-ness and female-ness, revealing a counter-narrative through which readers may discover the surprising role women have played in the country's national literature.
Specifically, in this paper I explore the crime narrative Fall River: An Authentic Narrative by Catherine Williams. Published in 1833, the text breaks most generic categories, encompassing true crime, biography, social history, and fiction among others.
Williams treats a young woman who dies a violent death, she leaves
open for the reader questions of the agent of the deed. Many believed
the heroine to have been killed by her lover, a local Methodist
preacher. Officially the death was ruled a suicide. While Williams
is somewhat concerned with the cause of death, she doesn't linger
of the details of the crime. Instead, the readers' attentions are
drawn to the violence inherent in the New England society in the
early 19th century, when and where the violence of production has
created a society in which young women are unmoored from home and
family, transient factory workers are the mercy of their indifferent
surroundings and subjective judgment. Attempting to reconstruct
a sanctuary she has never experienced first-hand, Sarah has repeated
enlisted in the popular revivals of her day, and just as regularly
was rebuffed by their righteous leaders, suffering as a dupe of
internal politics and petty jealousies. So the violence of production
has killed Sarah, or she has willingly sacrificed herself on its
altar in her devout belief in hard work and prayer as her saving
graces. Paradoxically, the violent act that the narrative takes
as its subject represents both a preservation and disintegration
of the social order that is its agent. Williams' authorship refuses
easy interpretation of the actions she composes, leaving the implicit
debate over individual mores and social forces insoluble. Sarah's
body remains a cipher, though read by agents of the church and court
several times, and by Williams and her readers, inviolable. Williams
closes her narrative by opening up its implications, claiming that
the publication of Sarah's story has brought "great injury
and injustice" to the class of young women who work in factories.
Such a gesture asks her readers to reconsider the direction of their
developing American society, to reconceive its foundational violence.
Representation of violence as both physical and structural occurs in a number of 20th century womens novels, primarily novels after 1970 that draw inspiration from the womens movement. However, Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook provides an example of this kind of representation that antedates second-wave feminism. Likely arising from Lessing's outsider experience of British imperialism, the examination of violence in this novel occurs through the complex juxtapositions caused by the relegation of the story into various notebooks and an entire novel within the novel. This fragmented structure encourages readers to see the violence alluded to in the backdrop of the novel as intimately associated with the issues of race, sex, and class depicted in the foreground of the narrative. Furthermore, the structure itself suggests a means of resisting violence: the reader, who is responsible for more work in creating meaning in fragmented texts like The Golden Notebook than in conventional realist fiction, learns, through reading, the critical stance necessary for connecting seemingly disparate events and for deconstructing rhetoric used to perpetuate violent human relations.
analysis of Lessing's novel, I propose to demonstrate a theory of
reading that examines one way novels use postmodern techniques to
comment on the complexity of violence.
This paper offers an analysis of the representations of domestic violence-more specifically, wife-beating-that exist in literature from the early modern period through the end of the twentieth century. I argue that the representations seen in such works as Shakespeare's Othello, Collier's Punch and Judy, Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, and Quindlen's Black and Blue treat domestic violence as the story, rather than a pre-story, of a woman's life. At the end of the story, the woman is either dead, in jail, or scarred for life (literally and metaphorically), forever subject to her abuser and defined by her abuse. Furthermore, the most-widely circulated representations displace domestic violence on those who differ from the white, middle class "norm" of American society: African-Americans, poor and working-class whites, and Catholics. This displacement obscures the root of domestic violence: patriarchy. By assigning to marginalized members of society the problem of domestic violence, battering is no longer a problem of patriarchy, and thus, the changes that are needed to eradicate patriarchy never occur.
These representations are problematic for several reasons. My family history has taught me that these representations are not "true" or "realistic" in any sense. The story of my grandmother, which will be my introduction, illustrates this point. My grandmother married at the age of sixteen and endured three years of abuse before she divorced her husband. While my grandmother certainly did not live an "easy" life after her divorce (she endured illness, poverty, the deaths of her second husband and two of her children), these hardships were not a result of her abusive first marriage. In short, she was not consigned to either death or destruction, as are most of the women represented in stories of domestic violence.
as materialist feminist criticism demonstrates, representations
do not passively reflect the reality of social problems. In "Mimesis,
Mimicry, and the 'True-Real,'" Elin Diamond notes that the
realistic form, which is the form most frequently used in theatre,
literature and film, "is more than an interpretation of reality
passing as reality; it produces 'reality' by positioning its spectator
to recognize and verify its truths" (366). This statement exemplifies
my concern with most domestic violence representations, as the "truth"
verified in these representations is that domestic violence is the
problem of "those people"-a racist, classist conclusion.
Finally, I will offer a brief discussion of how representations
of domestic violence can be improved and broadened, and I will point
to Susan Koppelman's short story collection Women in the Trees as
an example of a text that serves as a model for the types of images
I hope to see in wider circulation.