What Use Is Violence?

I’m here to contend that not all depictions of violence are equal, and the distinction between them has a lot to do with purpose. There is a real difference between relishing violence and bearing witness to it, but the difficulty is that in art (poetry, fiction, visual art, music, dance, film, etc.), witnessing is often bound up with pleasure and the two are hard to tease apart.

In her article about violence in The New York Times Magazine (“Battle Cry,” 8/20/17, p 9-11), Amanda Hess suggests that how violence is presented makes a big difference, too. Context matters, she says, as in cases ranging “from those who express extreme positions in polite tones [like the white nationalist Richard Spencer, who calls for ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’] to those who express reasonable positions in impolite ones” (11) like Black Lives Matter protestors have been accused of doing. The conclusion at which Hess arrives is that “[f]etishizing civility has a way of elevating style over substance” (11), so that we pay attention to the apparent politeness of the speech and not its incendiary content. She asks, essentially: should one be expected to politely answer to someone who’s calling for one’s extermination?

The implication here is that not all violence is equal, that there are more forms of violence than the physical (the verbal threat of violence is violence, too, as is hate speech in general), and that violence in many forms can be a necessary tool of resistance.

In the early 2000s, a travelling exhibit and subsequent book of postcards and other memorabilia commemorating the lynching of Black people in the U.S. (Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America, ed. James Allen) caused a ruffle of objections and questions wherever it went—photographs showed lynched Black bodies and their proud, rowdy white audiences. Should one look, or look away? Is consuming these images the same as participating in the violence? It was disturbing, to say the least, and heartbreaking. As a professor, I told my classes about the online version of the exhibit and warned them that what they would see if they looked was racist and violent, extremely hurtful and most likely indelible (this, of course, only seemed to entice most of them to look).

I’m thinking about this today, so many years later, because the question of violence and its representation has surfaced for me again, though in a much smaller way: my novel Olympia Knife contains several depictions of violence, and there was some discussion between the publisher and me about how best to handle this. The novel takes place in America in the early 20th Century and is concerned with the lives of those misfits who run away with the circus. There is a Black Creole fat lady who, as a child, saw her father lynched by white men. There is a white bearded lady who, as a young woman, was the victim of attempted sexual assault (which she successfully fended off by kicking her assailant). There’s the murder of a violent and dangerous person (I won’t give away who). None of these events are given more than a paragraph or two of prose, and none of the violent events are described graphically or pleasurably, but they are troublesome for me nonetheless.

I know many people are disturbed by such violence depicted in art, and many seek to avoid it. Of course, this is always a person’s choice to do, and only the individual can determine what’s best for them. But sometimes, I think, one needs to be disturbed. It’s dangerous to look away, to sequester oneself in constant, pillowy safety. Many of us, due to our identities (as LGBTQ people, women, POC, disabled folk, immigrants, or other marginalized people) do not have the option to avoid violence. As a queer, disabled, fat woman, I’m subjected to violent speech frequently, occasional threats of physical violence (once, a guy driving a van suggested he might run over a fat woman like me with no problem because I had ample “cushion”), and several occasions of seriously wounding actualized physical violence. I don’t speak, in other words, cavalierly about this subject. And I’m far luckier than many folks in this country, for whom violence is more seriously or more constantly waged, or institutionalized in our very social/governmental structure. It’s a difficult subject I don’t take lightly. It’s life-and-death for many of us.

I thought a lot about this back when I was debating how to address with my college classes the exhibition of the lynching photographs, and came to the conclusions that (1) I believe it’s important to confront the violent realities in which many people are forced to live, (2) it is a disservice to paper over the depiction of that violence with civility when many people have to live through it, but (3) such violence must be addressed carefully to avoid as best one can promoting voyeuristic entertainment from the suffering depicted (promoting, in effect, emotional tourism) and (4) other people may disagree with these ideas, and so there must always be the opportunity to decide not to look.

At the end of his heartbreaking film Bamboozled, director Spike Lee included a montage of his own collection of “mammy” dolls and other racist toys and decorations set against striking monochrome backgrounds and a mournfully beautiful song by Steve Winwood. It’s disturbing and painful (as is the film itself), but entirely necessary for the moment. The film also contains genius performances by Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson in a modern minstrel-type show, and the juxtaposition of pleasure at their humor and talent against the horror of taking pleasure in a racist show is part of how the film intentionally hurts its viewers. But Lee does this for a very good reason. It’s the pain that’s produced alongside the pleasure, and being asked as a viewer to confront how I can enjoy those quietly, politely violent things, that teaches me about locking myself mindlessly into pleasure at the expense of others and gives the film its meaning, its ability to convince and to affect me so deeply.

Too often, in art that attempts to depict the wounds of racism and other dangerous institutions like it, the racism becomes an abstraction. Through depictions of violence, it becomes real—it makes a real, physiological effect on the body: you cry, you go cold, or you shake, you cringe, it produces pain. Because I taught about horror film for so many years, I cannot stop myself from explaining that this very idea is what underlies the workings of many horror films—the combination of psychological and physical reactions to its contents (you jump and shiver, as well as worrying), ensures you are affected deeply and intensely.

A 1922 poster included in the Without Sanctuary exhibit quotes the NAACP: “To maintain civilization in America, you cannot escape your responsibility” (http://www.cnn.com/2000/US/01/18/lynching.photography/index.html?_s=PM:US). In light of frequent police violence against people of color, one strategy in recent years has been for bystanders to observe and even film police interactions, to make clear they will bear witness to anything that takes place.

Violence and repression, in other words, happen more effectively in the dark and in silence. Denial is powerful (see, for example, how effective Holocaust deniers can be; 16 countries have laws against Holocaust denial and even more have more general laws against denying genocide). It is our responsibility to bear witness, to others and to ourselves. It’s part of the reason repressive political regimes often quickly silence the press and arrest or kill journalists before doing anything else (or they may simply ban the press from the White House, as a more recent and local example).

In my aesthetic, joy is political and vital—these days, I’ll take it when I can get it. But just as vital are struggle and displeasure. Art must not be an escape from pain and difficulty, it should be our way to confront it. Finding joy must happen in the midst of grief, not in ignorance of it. Responsibility can only be shouldered by those who are willing and able to bear it, of course, but for those who are up for the fight, art is a way of bearing witness and—through that—salving one’s wounds. Respectfully, I urge that one must choose, as a way of being socially responsible, to look and to see.

 

 

 

Advertisements

What Happened? What Happened:

Those who know me as a professor may be surprised to hear that crowds of people, especially when I have to do something in front of those crowds, really shake me to my core. I am not very good at being in front of people, nor am I great in a crowd, nor do I do social stuff comfortably (many teachers are like this, apparently). So Book Con (the crazytown 2-day book fair of the Book Expo America (BEA) conference), which took place at a ridiculously-big venue (the Javits Center) in a ridiculously-big city (New York) was, for someone like me, daunting to say the least.

Still, I went, signed copies of SWEET, met some excellent people, browsed books and bookseller displays, drank my share of caffeinated diet colas that cost waaaaaay too much money at the convention center vendor stands, listened to some really great writers and editors give talks and did my fair share of hiding with a book in bathroom stalls and hallways with spare chairs. (I missed most of Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket’s talk, but caught the tail end and at least got to hear his deadpan voice… my book signing time conflicted with Lemony Snicket AND Bill Nye, and I messed up the days and missed hearing Janet Mock, but still… I was in the same room as all of them at one point. I’m a reader and fan first, writer second–in fact, I remember this lesson from my college writing program days perhaps more than any other: you cannot be a good writer unless you are reading voraciously–it’s dangerous hubris and also sort of gross-narcissistic-ignorant not to participate in the literary community as a reader if you’re contributing to it as a writer.)

signing

I will say it was really fun to meet so many people, almost all of whom were readers–and some of those were writers–who love books. I felt myself to be among my own kind.

I will also say it was very exciting to see the cover of the new book, OLYMPIA KNIFE, on a poster–this was the official revelation (I cannot say “reveal,” even though that’s the lingo… “reveal” is a verb, friends) of the cover for the book that comes out November 2, and, though I’d seen earlier versions, this was also MY first look at the official, final cover, and I really quite love it. (I had no doubt I would, because I am a huge fan of the art director/cover designer C. B. Messer, who also did the cover and book design for SWEET, my first novel, the one that’s stacked next to me that I’m signing in the picture… that sticky note cover design will forever have my heart. She read the book and totally got what I was trying to make it, which is a satirical take on being romance while still kind of being a love story, a kind of cake-and-eat-it-too situation (please all hail that joke, because the novel largely takes place in a bakery) and the cover just exactly captures that blend of Romance Novel Trope and Not That At All.) Here is the cover for OLYMPIA KNIFE, due out Nov 2:

OK cover poster

At the bottom there, that’s a teaser quotation from the first chapter. But seriously, how beautiful is that cover? (The book takes place at the start of the 20th century in a rather janky travelling circus, and over the course of the novel all the acts wind up disappearing, hence the slightly dangerous-looking tents…)

So, I left the 2-day book-oriented fiasco with mixed feelings: on the one hand, my head was swimming from SO much (people, noise, books, things to do, money spent, long days) and I my body actually hurt, and I was exhausted for a full day afterward (I consider myself a tough dame, but sometimes my disability reminds me I may be tough but I’m still at its whim). On the other hand, I felt buoyed by meeting so many really superb people, and especially buoyed the ones that asked me to sign a copy of a thing I wrote, about which I had never even dared to dream when I was a fourth grader and decided I would be a writer when I grew up. Hard not to be red-faced and flattered when someone not only reads something you wrote, but BUYS it and then ASKS YOU TO DEFACE IT WITH YOUR TAG. One fellow asked that I sign a copy of Sweet for his wife, and requested to take a picture of himself next to me as I did so in order to prove to her that he didn’t just fake it (are you out there, sir or sir’s wife? you totally made my YEAR).

I also got to (re)meet some of the other writers at the press who were there: Jude Sierra, Lilah Suzanne and C. B. Lee, all of whom are writers I admire (check out their books at http://www.interludepress.com, or in my reviews on this site. I love all the books–each has several–but can particularly suggest What It Takes by Sierra, Broken Records by Suzanne, and Not Your Sidekick by Lee as favorites.)

Now that BEA is over and the flurry of book conferences has died down a bit (for me) for a while, I can go back to my hidey-hole (thanks, Mr. Bush) and read and write in solitude for a bit.

On my lap right now are two books, so expect reviews soon, of Huntsmen by Michele Osgood and Of Cats and Men by Sam Kalda. Now, please excuse me while I go make up a pot of chamomile-lavender tea and find a cat or dog to warm up my legs as I read in peace.