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One of the problems with reviewing this book is the premise on which Abel’s argument rests: he challenges the notion of critical judgment. Abel’s thesis, closely based on the work of Gilles Deleuze, by implication challenges the core philosophy of review as a retrograde and rather solipsistic insistence on frequently unclear or unacknowledged moral criteria. In these terms one cannot begin to propose this volume as a good book—or as a bad book. In the end, it is just a book, in the same way that sometimes a pipe is just a pipe, but flying in the face of this text’s critical trajectory, I would argue it is a book with much to recommend it.
Abel begins in the preface by citing the “Spinozist provocation that we do not yet know what violent images are and how they work” (xi–xii), and goes on to deploy that provocation in regard to a range of novels, films, and performances. Violent Affect thus spans several disciplines and forms, including cultural and literary studies, film studies, and performance studies. The methodology that Abel employs in addressing his subjects is that of “masocriticism,” which he defines in the first chapter: “to defer the advent of pleasure that criticism clearly derives from the arrival at a moment at which the critic gets to articulate his [sic] judgment of violence, or certainty (even if it comes in the form of the assertion that the representational meaning remains undecidable)” (22). Abel employs such deferred critical gratification to address violent moments, responses, or acts in American Psycho (novel and film), Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, Robert DeNiro’s acting, and Don DeLillo’s essay about the events of 9/11. In each case Abel teases out a complex [End Page 466] reading of the relation between texts and contexts. In the chapter on American Psycho, for example, critical responses to the novel and the film are examined as a means of establishing the prevalent desire among critics of all political persuasions for some resolution to the moral problematic that Brett Easton Ellis’s novel represents. Abel argues that such critical judgments attempt to close down the threat of such a discomfiting text in their “domesticating response to violence” (57). In effect, the methodology (masocriticism) that Abel employs tries to avoid such domestication and instead seeks to follow the example of texts like American Psycho in responding “to the other (violence) as other, or that which does not signify anything, as that which can be encountered merely through its forces that produce specific affective effects” (56).
Initially my response to masocriticism was suspicious, as it tended, in the first few chapters, to involve a labyrinthine approach to its subjects that appeared to obscure rather than elucidate the “affective effect.” Chapter 3, however, offered something of a breakthrough in its lucid critique of disciplinary traditions within academic criticism—this chapter lays out the problem Abel attempts to address in Violent Affect, and subsequent chapters further elucidate both the problem and possible solutions. Most powerfully, with reference to Lawrence Grossberg’s work in cultural studies, Abel notes how academic work deploys critical theory as a means of making sense of the world, of bringing order to asignifying affect. Abel glosses Deleuzian theory in this respect, stating that “Affects produce effects; they are about linkages, about the logic of the ‘and’ rather than that of ‘either/or’” (85). Ironically this puts Abel’s project at risk of the same critical cul-de-sac as that to which he earlier assigned de Man—as subject to the “gravitational pull of the very problem he diagnoses.” In deferring judgment and refusing to assign moral categories, masocriticism may be merely the latest attempt to gain the critical high ground. This would be to deny the force of Abel’s argument however. In his account, masocriticism is not a refusal to judge but a decision to judge in a less immediate manner; to refuse to offer a singular or simple response. In the chapter on Highsmith’s...