- Violent Affect: Literature, Cinema, and Critique after Representation
Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash. During our friendship he had rehearsed his death in many crashes, but this was his only true accident.—J.G. Ballard
More than once while reading Marco Abel’s Violent Affect, I had the distinct feeling that books like this don’t really get published much anymore. Above all else, it’s the kind of volume that leads with its theoretical stance—the pious Deluezian astride a sampling of contemporary literary and cinematic sites: the films Miller’s Crossing (1990) and American Psycho (2000), Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), the acting m.o. of Robert DeNiro, an essay by DeLillo on 9/11. The common denominator to all these is that they figure morally inchoate violence for indeterminate ends. More to the point, each elicits a symptomatic strain of censure that Abel in turn wishes to critique. The strain emanates from certain quarters of popular cliché—movie reviewers, political grandstanding—and characteristically mires itself in popular sermonizing about the hazards of depicting violent things. Against this tendency, Abel’s book asserts that violent images are best viewed not in representational terms but rather tackled as transgressively pedagogical problems, affective events for literary-critical experimenting in an alternative theoretical vocabulary about “how the imaged violence itself calls forth critical response-ability” (xvi). Reluctant to fall into the pitfall of too much context (it interferes with the text’s “plane of immanence”), he promises instead to rig instruments for plying the violently differential surfaces of the artwork.
The book, directed only at the violent thing close at hand, is proposed as a kind of myopic instrument for gauging the results of an “affective smearing of violence across a sliding scale of intensities” (xv–xvi). Intensities is a telling word for Abel’s project, given the thesis that judgment and violence [End Page 407] are, in effect, mutual irritants. Spun out in a repetitive, recursive manner, the intensity of thesis is adjusted and modulated, dialed up and dialed down, chapters said to move too quickly, pacing slowed, knobs tuned with examples scouted in advance, then re-watched in the rearview mirror. A cursory mention of the affected quality of Christian Bale’s acting in American Psycho anticipates a subsequent consideration of Robert DeNiro’s acting method; an elaboration of Deleuze-inspired “masocriticism” telescopes into a mannered unpacking of the ill-value judgments of Matthew Arnold, Lawrence Grossberg, and Paul de Man. As in the night where are all cows are black, all Abel’s exemplary cases, his so-called theoreticians of violent affect—Francis Bacon, Joel and Ethan Coen, Patricia Highsmith, Bret Easton Ellis, Mary Harron, Christian Bale, Robert DeNiro, Don DeLillo, Friedrich Nietzsche—are all stalking horses for Gilles Deleuze.
One thing that makes Violent Affect intriguing, albeit frustrating, to this reviewer is its stubborn avoidance of the familiar contours of thinking “about” violence—or, its preference for, in Abel’s formulation, acting out rather than working through violence (167–68). Violence affect is one thing, it seems, violent effects and violent means are others. The Foucault who hovers on the edges of the latter in conversation with Deleuze, in other words, didn’t write Discipline and Punish (1975). And, for all Abel’s interest in psychotic protagonists, psychoanalysis is also (obviously) off the table, so is René Girard, so is the line of thinking about violence and politics that includes Hobbes, Weber, Sorel, Kafka, Schmitt, Benjamin, Arendt, Agamben, Elaine Scarry, and Judith Butler (see the recent anthology On Violence  edited by Bruce B. Lawrence and Aisha Karim for a thorough crash-course). For its part, Violent Affect is all but silent about two key areas concerning violence and its effects—the role of state power and the role of sex and gender. This lapse notwithstanding, there remains a clear segue from Abel’s preoccupations to those articulated in Benjamin’s famous essay “Critique of Violence,” from Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, which asserts that “violence can first...