Violence in Film
The purpose of this essay is an exploration of Walter Benjamin's concept of “divine violence” which he defines in his essay Critique of Violence as the complementary opposite of “mythic” or state-founding violence. The idea for this paper arose from the question, “What would divine violence look like in film? Is it possible to represent divine violence? Is it possible for films to participate in divine violence?” My source for this examination of the possibilities of divine violence in cinema is Slavoj Žižek's recent book, Violence (2008)* in which he analyzes several different types of violence under the premise that violence is not always “bad” violence, and that in fact the most visible violence is rarely the “worst”. Starting from this premise I will attempt to extract Žižek's ideas of what constitutes divine violence as it contrasts other types of violence. Then I will look at several violent films searching for depictions of this divine violence.
The easiest way to define divine violence, due to its elusive and unclear nature, and which the structure and content of Žižek's book attest to, is negatively. Divine violence is first of all, and most obviously, not subjective violence. Subjective violence for Žižek is that violence which has (obviously) subjective motivations. Crimes of passion, in which a cuckolded lover attacks or murders the one who is perceived to have done the cuckolding, and perhaps revenge more generally, seems a prime candidate here. This type of violence is precisely pathological, not in the Kantian sense of being impure but in the common psychological sense of being motivated by the subject's inner mental processes. Subjective violence is possibly the most visible, and simultaneously the least interesting (or least revealing), type of violence.
Second of all, divine violence is importantly and, for me, most confusingly not objective violence. Objective violence is defined by Žižek as the violence necessary in order to sustain the status quo, or the “zero level” violence, as he terms it, which undergirds the symbolic order. Due to the power of ideology to efface the underpinnings of the symbolic, however, objective violence is perhaps the most invisible of the types of violence Žižek analyzes. You would never see reports of objective violence in the media because almost by definition it would be too much to handle, too traumatic, and would impede the smooth functioning of everyday life. Because of this traumatic dimension, objective violence is rarely witnessed directly and instead encountered most often as a residue, as a sort of leftover. The first example that comes to mind is if we were to come into contact with the dead body of a child who was forced to spend her life mining conflict minerals** in the Congo and elsewhere. Imagine a technophile who always buys the newest iPhone the day it comes out visiting their local Apple store to discover a pile of dead Congolese in place of the expected friendly smile of an employee. As the violence which lies underneath the symbolic, an encounter with the residue of objective violence is incredibly traumatic and as such properly belongs to the order of the Real. Society as we know it would cease functioning were we to have too direct or too constant of an encounter with it, and this is precisely why Žižek calls it zero level violence. While exposing objective violence is perhaps more important today than ever, this is nonetheless not quite divine violence.
Finally, divine violence is not, as Benjamin points out and on which Žižek elaborates, mythic violence. Mythic violence is the violence necessary to found a state, for example the violent elimination and relocation of the Native Americans over the course of the establishment of the United States. While it would be easy to dismiss an analysis of mythic as unnecessary, as something that happened a long time ago and is now over, a closer look here will reveal the fallacy of this claim. While the founding of most nations happened centuries ago, this type of violence is still visible today. Most obviously we can see mythic violence in the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over the country of Israel and the Gaza Strip. While it is easy to dismiss the violence of the Palestinians as simply antisemitic, there is more to it than that. Both sides believe they have a claim to the land, and not only to the land but to the right to establish a nation of their own in this specific geographical (not to mention religious) location. Žižek makes this obvious when he proposes the thought experiment of making Jerusalem a state-free zone. This is obviously the best (or at least most reasonable) solution for both sides, so why would it not work? Because precisely the purpose of this violence is state-founding: the purpose is not to find a way for each side to be able to practice its religion freely, but to (selfishly) create a nation. Mythic violence and divine violence are very different, but it will be helpful to keep an idea of mythic violence in mind in order to properly consider a definition of divine violence since Benjamin proposes the two as opposite but complementary.
So what is divine violence? If it's the opposite of mythic violence that would seem to imply that divine violence is state destroying violence, the most obvious example of which would be war. This is not the case however (although in some cases divine violence may problematize a state's foundations). So what if we take the concept of mythic violence a little more metaphorically: if mythic violence founds the state, and therefore the law, divine violence could be that which overturns the law, destroys the status quo in order to make room for a new one. The simplest example, and one which will illuminate the inadequacies of this definition, is revolutionary violence. While this concept is closer to that of divine violence, it still misses the mark. In a rare moment of true clarity for Žižek, he provides us with a surprisingly workable (albeit still oppositional) definition:
[T]he opposition of mythic and divine violence is that between the means and the sign, that is, mythic violence is a means to establish the rule of Law (the legal social order), while divine violence serves no means, not even that of punishing the culprits and thus re-establishing the equilibrium of justice. It is a sign of the injustice of the world, of the world being ethically “out of joint. (199-200; my emphasis)
Mythic violence, as a means, is always and necessarily purposive (the purpose being the foundation of the “rule of Law”), whereas divine violence, as a sign, is precisely the opposite: “meaningless”, or non-purposive, all it does is represent something, most often the presence of inequality (though, as Žižek points out, it does nothing to correct this situation). This distinction is important to keep in mind as we move forward into film analysis.
A problem quickly arises when trying to delineate examples of divine violence however: almost all violence, as long as it's not the result of a natural disaster***, can seem to have a purpose if we look close enough. Even if it doesn't reach its goal, all violence can be identified as a means to some end. Žižek cites the revolutionary Terror of 1792-94 as an example of divine violence, but since this is violence enacted by human agents, it is possible to identify certain motivations: the systematic elimination of the bourgeois class, purging the political system of corruption (even if these motivations were tainted by paranoia). Here Žižek makes reference to Badiou to clarify:
[I]n Badiou's terms, mythic violence belongs to the order of Being, while divine violence belongs to the order of Event: there are no “objective” criteria enabling us to identify an act of violence as divine; the same act that, to an external observer, is merely an outburst of violence can be divine for those engaged in it. (200)
Since “there are no 'objective' criteria” for distinguishing divine violence from other types of violence, a single outbreak might be experienced as divine violence by one person and not another. Here we encounter perhaps the most problematic aspect of divine violence: its experiential dimension. As an example of this, Žižek prompts us to consider the Holocaust. How impossible, how unbelievable, would it be to claim that there is a teleology underlying the Holocaust? For the Nazis, or at least for Hitler, the systematic elimination of the Jewish population was a necessary precondition for the founding of the German state, and in this way the Holocaust functions for them as mythic violence. For the Jews who experienced it, however, and for a large portion of the global population today, the Holocaust functions as a stain, as a meaningless blot disrupting the unity of an otherwise (seemingly) teleological progression of history. In this way we can begin to see the disruptive effect of divine violence. While not functioning in a progressive way, divine violence seems to break with history, not in order to begin a new era of history, but for no purpose, for disruption-in-itself.
From here I would like to move on to an analysis of several films and their relationship to these various types of violence. The vast majority of what are seen today as the most extremely violent and discomforting films fall (ironically, perhaps) into the domain of subjective violence perpetrated by some sort of pseudo-psychotic individual. The Saw films are here a perfect example. While these are easily some of the most violent, cringe-inducing movies you can watch, they revolve entirely around the idea of the primary antagonist, Jigsaw, testing out his sadistic traps on unwilling subjects. Movies ranging from cult classics such as The Human Centipede (2009) and the films of Quentin Tarantino to more mainstream classics such as Se7en (1995) and The Usual Suspects (1995) all fall too easily into this trap of assigning violence to the realm of sadism and psychosis. For this reason the films I analyze will not necessarily be the most horrifically violent or disturbing films of all time, but instead those films which deal with the subject of violence in a certain way. I will therefore look first at two very recent films, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) and Skyfall (2012), which attempt to avoid a confrontation with objective violence by giving it a human face. Then I will look at The Lorax (2012) and Fight Club (1999), two films which attempt to confront objective violence in a more or less critical way and with a differing amount of success (an interesting example of what Žižek analyzes elsewhere on the topic of ideological deterioration). Finally I will look at two films that come as close as I have witnessed to depictions of divine violence: Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Katsuhiro Ôtomo's Akira (1988).
Especially in Hollywood, detective films abound which seem to attempt to confront their audiences with the continuing presence of objective violence. While generally glorifying this violence in a more or less hesitant way (simply consider film noir: detectives are often opposed to the police, the embodiments of the “rule of Law”, but nonetheless seem to be working towards the same goal of reestablishing a level of normalcy or returning to a “zero level”), two recent films put a new spin on normalizing the violence of the status quo. The primary antagonists of both Skyfall and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol are significantly both nationless: Silva in Skyfall lives on his own island and does not identify with any existing state or nation; and Kurt Hendricks in Ghost Protocol has an anglo name, is Swedish born, and worked for the Russian government before being exiled as a “nuclear extremist” (after which he adopted the codename Cobalt—perhaps the ultimate renunciation of personal nationality). The goal of each of these antagonists is slightly different however.
Silva wants to destroy MI6, which at first appears to be an attempt to rectify the wrongs done by MI6 in order to sustain the status quo. M, the head of MI6, receives a message from Silva at the beginning of the movie saying “Think on your sins.” This seems to be an obvious allusion to objective violence: “Think about what you've done in order to sustain the state of stasis of your organization and the nation in general.” Later, however, it is revealed that Silva meant the message and all of his acts of violence in the film as a personal vendetta against M, who abandoned him in a moment of desperation. This, unfortunately, is just the beginning of Skyfall's failure. On the other hand, Hendricks in Ghost Protocol attempts to orchestrate an act of violence which would fit better into the realm of mythic violence. Hendricks has obtained a nuclear weapon and in his central monologue he outlines his goals: “What happens after the end of the world? Every two or three million years, some natural catastrophe devastates all life on Earth. But life goes on. And what little remains is made stronger. Put simply, world destruction is an unpleasant but necessary part of evolution.” Here Hendricks is quite simply saying that there is teleological value in nuclear annihilation; that detonating a nuclear weapon would lead us to a new era of greatness; in short, that detonating a nuclear weapon is not random, subjective violence but mythic violence. Nuclear annihilation is a means to further “evolution”.
Moving on from the violence perpetrated by the antagonists, let's examine the heroes. If we identify Silva and Hendricks as the residue of objective violence, people who are outside of any conception of statehood, then Bond and Hunt (the protagonists) and their attempted elimination of their respective antagonists seem to function as more objective violence. Silva and Hendricks both aim to disrupt the status quo, they both aim to raise society above its “zero level” of stasis, and Bond and Hunt aim to stop that. As one of Hunt's associates notably says at the end of Ghost Protocol, “All these people are just happy and smiling and they’re completely oblivious to the fact that they were almost vaporized!” Both Bond and Hunt's violence is successful in that it allows the status quo to go on unimpeded, it allowed society to remain at its zero level. Because of this and because of the way the films both focus their energy toward showing how bad the violence of the antagonists is, I believe both of these films are attempting to portray what I want to call objective violence with a human face. Instead of seeing how the status quo in fact produced the existence of these “radicals”, the films merely present them as present and as dangerous. We shouldn't think, we should just be glad we weren't “vaporized”.
The next two films I want to consider deal more directly with the idea of objective violence, and instead of trying to cover it up they both endeavor to bring it to light: The Lorax and Fight Club. Both function more or less as critiques of capitalism and of the violence underlying its maintenance, but Fight Club (sort of) succeeds where The Lorax fails. The Lorax presents a society in which every tree has been cut down and there is only one seed left to create new ones. This is presented explicitly as the result of capitalist overproduction and provides a (disgusting) parallel to the conflict minerals I mentioned above. The solution in The Lorax to the problem of not having any more trees (trees make oxygen and are therefore necessary to survival, the film posits) is not a deeper critique of capitalism. The solution is simply to plant more trees. To apply this solution to the problem of Congolese mass deaths in the mining of conflict minerals, the solution is not to fix the situation so uncounted Congolese are not constantly dying or at risk of death, but to simply breed more people to mine the minerals. Fight Club, on the other hand, offers a slightly more effective solution to the problem of the objective violence inherent to capitalism: destroy the buildings that house credit records, returning everyone's credit to zero. While this obviously doesn't solve all (or even very many) of the country's problems, it does at least confront society with (some of) its foundations.
Finally, I would like to examine two films that come as close to depicting divine violence as I have ever encountered: Dr. Stangelove and Akira. Dr. Strangelove is the well known story of Cold War tensions being escalated into all out nuclear war by the paranoia of one military general. He orders pilots under his command to launch their nuclear arsenal at the Russians, and despite attempts by both Russia and the United States, these weapons are successfully detonated resulting in total global annihilation. While this attack did originally have a (paranoid-psychotic) purpose, this purpose is certainly not achieved, and, if anyone were to survive, the destruction would be experienced precisely as meaningless. So, in an analogy to the Holocaust (and here we return to the experiential dimension I mentioned), while for some the violence functions as a means, the resulting destruction is instead experienced by most as divine.
Since the inciting incident of the film is that of a paranoid psychotic taking matters into his own hands (violence as a means to eliminate the Russian threat), Strangelove perhaps doesn't come as close as to divine violence as Akira. Akira is similar to Strangelove in that the violence begins as the efforts of one pathological individual to achieve certain ends: Tetsuo (against his will) is given superpowers which he originally uses for his own purposes. The movie becomes much more nuanced as it goes on, however. Several groups of people see the superpowers as the sign of a sort of God coming to earth to usher in a new era (clearly mythic violence), but these people are ultimately proven wrong. Tetsuo eventually loses control of his new powers, and, after perhaps one of the most famous scenes in the history of Japanese animation, there is a huge explosion which destroys a large portion of the city. This explosion achieves the ends of neither Tetsuo nor the pseudo-revolutionaries (nor the scientists who gave Tetsuo the powers to begin with), and is experienced instead as meaningless, as divine violence (not, obviously, in the sense of divine intervention as the revolutionaries had expected). This final explosion doesn't function as a means, it simply functions as a sign, in this case a sign of the society's rampant technological and scientific (over)development. The explosion doesn't do anything to resolve the situation (although blowing up the city is a good start, I guess), but instead merely shows everyone who witnesses it the ultimate result of too much technological and scientific development. This is, I believe, as close as film has come to depicting Benjamin's divine violence.
*Žižek, Slavoj, Violence, Picador, New York, 2008
**Conflict minerals are resources necessary to manufacture the chips in laptops and cell phones and which are currently causing uncountable amounts of people to die in order for the “developed” world to function the way it does.
***Natural disasters can be an interesting case of divine violence. Consider Hurricane Sandy, a storm which most scientists/meteorologists at the time seemed to agree was “caused” by global warming (an obvious byproduct of capitalism). This seems a prime example of violence as a “sign” of the excesses of capitalism, but (to borrow Badiou's terminology) since we were not faithful to the Event nothing came about as a result of it. While seemingly more of an objective sort of divine violence, I believe this still contains the experiential dimension I explain in the rest of this paragraph.