A Masocritical Engagement with Marco Abel’s Theory of Violent Affect
With his Violent Affect, Marco Abel opens a new era in the analysis of violent imagery in media and entertainment. Given the wealth of scholarship devoted to the subject of violence in film and literature, readers cannot help but approach this book under the conviction that there exists plentiful and valuable knowledge on the subject. Abel immediately disarms their confidence in the value of existing scholarship by raising a simple question that places in doubt previous investigations: What is a violent image?
Abel charges that the failure to problematize what a violent image is undermines the worth of the vast body of existing scholarship on images of violence in literature and cinema, and places in question the efficacy of those analyses for explaining how and why these images function. Previous scholarship simply assumes a direct representational linkage with reality: that violent images reflect real-life events. This foundational assumption both occludes the actual functions of violent images and causes scholars to fail to distinguish among differing kinds of violent images. It does not permit even the most basic of differentiations among violent images, for example, violence in animated films as opposed to violence in photographic realist films.
The assumption that violent images simply represent real life events of violence has oriented previous studies toward analyses of the images in terms of accuracy,, the replication of a thing or event that exists prior to the emergence of the image. Scholars have turned away from the fact of the actual violence affected by violent images to examine what these images signify or mean, what living truth they re-present. In sticking to this founding assumption, Abel understands previous scholars to be missing the point of the violent images, neglecting the crucial aspect of the work of the violent images—the experience evoked in the audience by submitting oneself to their reality.
For Abel, the problem is that these (at best, questionable; at worst, faulty) conclusions have had a vast effect upon our world. “Social policy is made—and institutional relevance established—on the basis of [their] findings” (xi). Abel proposes a radically alternative approach to the study of violent images that he promises will open not only new avenues of investigation into film and literature, but will evoke new ethical insights into violence as a subjective phenomenon.
Abel insists that, to truly understand violent images, we must cast off the representationalist orientation that structures our view of violent images in themselves, and reconfigures them as representations of something else, some greater reality. This shift of orientation will not be easy or comfortable, explains Abel, because representationalism allows the scholar great existential benefit. It allows her to separate herself at a safe distance from the violence she studies out there in the phenomena, to strap the violence down in firm, clinical, analytic language, and to judge it objectively. Representationalism accomplishes a “Platonic” mirroring gesture between image and reality that implies the scholar’s pristine innocence from her subject, allowing her a violence-free place of analysis, prior to the phenomenon of violence.
The new orientation toward violent images proposed by Abel dictates that we abandon the safety of scholarly objectivity and experience the images subjectively, that we may study their force upon us, their ability to violently affect us. The subjective orientation challenges us to ask different questions about violent images. What are these images? What effect do they seek to have upon their audience? What function do they serve? How do they achieve their desired effect? The new orientation proposed by Abel forces us to get beyond the moral outrage evoked by the images and grapple with violent images in their own right, and not as representations of some greater reality; it forces us to grapple with another reality, a metaphysics that affected subjectivity witnesses in the physical and emotional effects of the images.
Abel names his new approach to violent images “masocriticism,” blending the notion of masochism with that of criticism. Abel understands masocriticism as “a criticism of violence [engaged] in a rigorous practice of deferrals, of diagnosing instead of judging images, of producing a symptomatology instead of a history of syndromes, of responding through the affective, visceral side of language and images rather than through their second order level—representation” (23). Just as a masochist is forced to give herself over to the unforeseeable future of the affective event, allowing her body to be reconfigured through an unmediated engagement with violence, so the “masocritic” must abandon the safe distance of scholarly investigation, allowing herself to be physically and affectively altered by the phenomenological encounter with the violent image. This encounter opens a new future, a new event, which permits fresh insights into violence that are unforeseeable from the safe vantage point of scholarly objectivity.
Abel’s point of departure from existing scholarly approaches is taken from insights he identifies in thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze, who conceptualize language and images in terms of their force—“arepresentationally.” Abel takes up their challenge and applies it to violent images; his experimental endeavor asks of violent images, not their meanings or whether they are justified as faithful representations of reality, but how they act upon—affect— their audience, how they configure the observer’s ability to respond. According to Abel’s theory of masocriticism, only a thoroughly subjective encounter with the violence of violent images in literature and cinema can have the adequate pedagogical force to change the subject and her world.
After outlining his theory of masocriticism, Abel then applies it to a number of textual forms. At this point in the book, Abel invites us into his experiment, challenging us to follow us in his treatment of various films and books, and to witness for ourselves how we are “affected” by the violent images we encounter. These encounters reveal and enact the ethical element of Abel’s project. The reader’s engagement with the violent images witnesses how violent images have the power to call forth in their audience a critical engagement with violence. As the images demand of the subject who undergoes their reality an affective response to their violence, they simultaneously evoke a response-ability with regard to all violence per se. The ethical aspect of the subjective encounter reveals a compelling fact—that judgments about violence ultimately cannot be evaded. Masocriticism forces us to postpone moralizations in favor of a more deeply subjective moral experience.
What differentiates Marco Abel’s study of violent images from the previous body of scholarship on the subject is his altogether radical methodological—and indeed ontological—assumption that “signaletic materials of any kind are not representations of something but, instead, constitute the reality of representations (or the real forces at work in what are often deemed representations)” (x). Abel’s is a deep-seated polemic that provokes a new line of thought about its subject. The reader may enter skeptically into Abel’s radical experiment, but as Abel takes her hand and leads her one after another through her own subjective encounters with violent images—from Mary Harron’s film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, to Patricia Highsmith’s fiction, to Robert DeNiro’s acting, to Don DeLillo’s essay on 9/11—she ultimately comes to realize that the experiences she has undergone have thoroughly convinced her of the value of Abel’s pedagogical method.
Abel’s masocriticism is itself a metaphysical experience, a magic that is worked upon the subject to remove her from her sense of reality in order to teach her lessons about violence, not accessible from within the scholarly frame of reference. Literary and cinematic criticism will be greatly offended by Marco Abel’s new theory of masocritical engagement, but it will also be affected. Further studies in the field of literary and cinematic criticism will be incapable of honest progress until they first address Abel’s fundamental challenge to the founding assumptions of their methodology.
Wendy C. Hamblet is a Canadian philosopher, alumna of Brock University, Canada, and Penn State University, USA. She is a specialist in genocide studies, Holocaust, and the phenomenology of violence, and holds credentials in Counseling, Philosophical Counseling, and Conflict Transformation. Hamblet is the author of several books, including The Sacred Monstrous; Savage Constructions: The Myth of African Savagery; and The Lesser Good: The Problem of Justice in Plato and Levinas, and many articles in peer-refereed journals such as Ratio, Prima Philosophia, Existentia, and Symposium. Hamblet is an Associate Professor of Liberal Studies at North Carolina A&T State University, where she teaches Contemporary World, Genocide, and Contemporary Moral Issues.