- Loud but Non-lethalAcoustic Stagings and State-Sponsored Violence
It is forbidden to kill. Therefore, all murderers are punished, unless they kill in large numbers, and to the sound of trumpets.—Voltaire1
Voltaire’s words open The Act of Killing (2012), Joshua Oppenheimer and his colleagues’ shocking exploration of the 1965–66 Indonesian genocide and of the culture of immunity and terror that the massacre passed down. In this documentary film, actual perpetrators dramatize their role in the genocide: former death squad leaders boastfully reenact their violent actions and showcase their killing and torture techniques for the camera. The perpetrators’ reenactments are in turn modeled on the films that they like, and the killers dress up as cowboys or movie gangsters and impersonate the Communists they killed and the women they raped. The genocidaires sing, dance, and display their musicality across The Act of Killing in unscripted interactions with the camera, as well as in staged musical set-numbers. Music feels aberrantly misplaced.
The substantial media coverage and social criticism of this film inevitably mention the musical moments; they are grotesque and outrageous.2 The musical [End Page 151] numbers in The Act of Killing are felt to be the foremost expression of the impunity of the film’s characters. And yet, these staged scenes do not retrieve a prior crime, and they bespeak a violence that is far less accountable in terms of casualties than any of the other reenactments and testimonies that appear in the film. Instead, the musical numbers reference the genocidaires’ dreams, desires, and frustrations; they are an invitation to feel with them. The disturbing character of the musical numbers for some viewers invites a nascent and unwanted glimpse of empathy with a mass killer, while for others, perhaps, it is the death squad leader’s unembarrassed entitlement to dream in music, to record it, and to send it to the world that provokes nausea. Still other viewers could be indignant with The Act of Killing and with its directors for encouraging and providing the means for these sadistic criminals to sing their songs. After all, one could say that music does not add to what the film is denouncing, providing neither information nor evidence—it is a luxury. In The Act of Killing, the musical numbers display themselves as a blatant performance that anticipates and demands a public. If the musical numbers place the impunity that these mass murderers enjoy center stage, they also set forth something implicit in each reenactment and inscribed in the film’s routine: the killers are acting for us.
In Voltaire’s quote, the difference between state-supported violence and criminal action is regarded as a question of framing and bearing. State violence sets itself apart in order to enact its legitimacy and deploys the sound of the trumpets to announce and qualify its acting. All the while sound advertises the violence and the executants’ dispensation. For Voltaire and for the spectators, makers, and characters of The Act of Killing, music, when convened with violence, calls forth impunity and, like any other musical performance, conjures an audience.
In 2006 Suzanne Cusick began a series of articles that respond to, describe, and analyze the “use of acoustic violence as a medium of torture” in American detention camps during the military campaign that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.3 Dealing with music as torture upset the idea of music as it had been fantasized and constructed in musicology, questioning whether this music qualified as “a musicological affair.”4 The use of music also defied conventional [End Page 152] understandings of violence, and if music struck the general public as a farfetched instrument of torture, it also seemed to withstand accountability. To me, the most compelling challenge of Cusick’s project is the refusal to externalize music as torture by locating it outside of our auditory culture and practices. It is a challenge because, I propose, music-and sound-based violence has the ability to render itself exceptional, so as not to bother the routines of its everyday acting and of our everyday violence.
In this essay, I will discuss the ways in which loud...