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WILLIAM SOLOMON Wound Culture, the 1930s, and the Documentary Grotesque The simplest and strongest of these beings has been so designed upon by his experience that he has a wound . . . James Agee, "Introduction" (1940) to Walker Evans' Many Are Called I was buried alive in a void which was the wound that had been dealt me. í ivas the wound itself. Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939) 'ark seltzer's recent critical account of the features ,.of a wound culture, a distinguishing characteristic of which is the convening of groups around scenes of violence, would seem to offer a promising way back into the Depression era. In fact, one can even find emerging at the end of the decade, in Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (1939), a diagnosis that appears to anticipate Seltzer's analysis. Commenting on the crowd of bitter, resentful persons gathered together outside a Los Angeles movie premier, the novel's narrator suggests that their shared fascination with witnessing technologicallymediated disasters helps produce what following Seltzer we may call the pathological public sphere. Private desires take collective shape in the form of the mass attraction to scenes ofhorrifying atrocity as the bored and angry members of the crowd eagerly consume the "lynchings, murder , sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions , [and] wars" that the newspapers and movies deliver to them. Admittedly , their hope that the vision of such calamities will eliminate corporeal fatigue and psychic exhaustion is destined to remain unfulfilled , their "daily diet" ofsensationalist materials never "violent enough Arizona Quarterly Volume 58, Number 4, Winter 2002 Copyright © 2002 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004- 16 10 William Solomon to make taut their slack minds and bodies" (381). Still, although the sight of somatic injury fails to reverse emotional and physical depletion , the observation of human suffering does manage to invest individual existence with a social dimension. By looking at the agonizing pain others experience, the spectators realize what they have in common with those around them: they are all trauma victims.1 Crucially, the use of ripped apart bodies as the focal point of exchanges between the self and its world takes place here less as an act of differentiation than as a gesture of identification. The structure of the spectacle as the staging of an event that one may gaze upon from a reassuring distance tends to give way in these instances, as the private observer welcomes the feeling of being drawn into contact with others. It is not then simply the case in wound culture that the individual and the public coalesce as a disembodied mass subject in relieved distinction to injured persons (Warner 250). For the vulnerably exposed body also functions as a means of bringing people together in the sense that the breaking down of the barriers that separate individuals occurs through their shared immersion in corporeal pain. And it is this kind of dynamic crossing that West evokes in the famous riot scene that brings his novel to a close. Outside the theater the relation between film star and fan is not one of respectful looking from afar, as if the aura given off by the object of admiration preserves the distance between that object and its admirer. On the contrary, the interest in seeing is merely a prelude to the impulse to touch, and when this impulse is frustrated the affect of the impassioned mob is closer to aggressive rage than it is to erotic tenderness. "At the sight of their heroes and heroines, the crowd would turn demoniac. Some little gesture, either too pleasing or too offensive , would start it moving and then nothing but machine guns would stop it. Individually the purpose of its members might simply be to get a souvenir, but collectively it would grab and rend" (West 379). The desire for contact is a desire to take hold of a part—perhaps so that one may examine one's new possession up close—and any blockage of this desire is sure to result in an act of cruelty. In the late '30s, the intermingling of private and public registers across the mutilated, unsealed body was also receiving a theoretical formulation...


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pp. 81-105
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