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  • A Masocritical Engagement with Marco Abel’s Theory of Violent Affect
  • Wendy C. Hamblet (bio)
Marco Abel, Violent Affect: Literature, Cinema, and Critique after Representation Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2007. 225 pp.

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...