Abandoning the “Pornography of Violence"

Saturday, June 28, 2008

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Kevin Healey, Institute for Communications Research

Editor's Note: This post is part of a summer-long series that includes the writing of Kevin Healey (Communications) and Martha Webber (English) as they attend Cornell's SCT (School of Criticism and Theory) during the summer of 2008. As always, feel free to join the conversation.

In The Fragility of Empathy After the Holocaust (2004), Carolyn Dean begins by setting aside the question of whether, in fact, contemporary society suffers from a decline in empathy. Instead, her focus is how intellectuals (namely her fellow historians) have constructed the discourse of such a decline. They have done so by invoking certain tropes such as the “pornography of violence” in Holocaust literature and the “indifference” of German bystanders. Ironically, Dean argues, in deploying such tropes historians have not succeeded in clarifying the nature of empathy, the causes of its putative decline, or the possibility of its restoration. Rather, they have provided a means of avoiding serious engagement with the problem. Though she initially brackets the question of whether contemporary society suffers from a decline in empathy, though, it is clear that her unique approach to historiography is driven by this very concern.

Dean claims that references to the “pornography of violence” in Holocaust literature (as well as film and other media) are ultimately devoid of substance. The phrase carries intense moral weight, but because of its ability to escape definition, it “turns out not to explain anything at all.” It suggests a relationship between sexual and political pathology, and implicates the commercializing effects of mass media in the alleged increase in “numbness” toward injustice. But Dean insists that the invocation of pornography “make[s] it easier not to think” and diverts our attention from the question of how we might “forge a critical usage of empathy.” In the end, this pervasive trope does not move the conversation forward but merely expresses a vague and persistent post-Holocaust anxiety that there may be continuity between a normal person and a violent monster. In a broader sense, this anxiety troubles the liberal Enlightenment commitment that we share a common humanity which provides the foundation for a rational, democratic society.

What should we make of Dean’s emphatic rejection of pornography as a metaphor for describing explicit materials that recall the horrors of the Holocaust? Is her call to abandon this trope well-founded? Should we reserve some special place for the metaphor while seeking better approaches, such as Dean finds in the work of Omer Bartov? And should we be concerned, as Dean appears to be, about the alleged decline of empathy?


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Michael Rothberg said...

I can understand Dean's critique of use of the metaphor of pornography for understanding violence, but I'm less clear on how she gets from that to the question of empathy. I'd be curious to hear more about that move.

The question of whether there is a decline or "crisis of empathy" (related to the "crisis of the humanities"?!) is an interesting one. It probably has to be considered dialectically. What I mean is that we are expected today to be increasingly and more "globally" empathetic because of changes such as those accompanying new technologies and new "postcolonial" world views, but that expanded field of potential empathy also creates dilemmas and an "overload" of demands. I'm not sure what the end result is--at the least, a guilty recognition that there is more to be empathetic about than we can actually do anything about. But maybe that's an advance over a "local" empathy that never even considers realms beyond the community or nation.

Bruce Rosenstock said...

I'm reminded of one of Philip K. Dick's best novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Its basic theme is empathy. I'd say that one thing Dick shows is that there is also a pornography of empathy, let's say a narcissistic/masochistic use of empathy (in the Mercerism religion, rigged up in Hollywood to simulate fusion through physical pain). But even this gross parody of empathy and other forms like it in the book (the care for electric sheep) contains an element of truth (the need to "violate your own identity".) And the point Dick is making is certainly that globalizing empathy is the fastest way to pervert empathy. Empathy for Dick is local, fragile, absurd (even for a mechanical toad), but it's all there is that makes one human.

Michael Rothberg said...

Bruce's sci fi reference put me in mind of Ursula Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which Elizabeth Povinelli discusses in a very provocative new essay in SAQ called "The Child in the Broom Closet." We read this last year as part of our indigenous/subaltern Unit seminar. As Povinelli describes the story, it "tells the tale of a city, Omelas, where the happiness and wellbeing of its inhabitants depend on a small child being constrained to and humiliated in a small putrid broom closet." So, in a globalized world of radically unequal power relations, happiness is contingent on a strategic lack of empathy...

Keguro Macharia said...

I guess I'm interested in the specific way pornography is being used here (bad pun, sorry). To my mind, the problem with pornography is not that it deadens empathy, but that it produces a range of unruly reactions. We fail to react appropriately when faced with the pornographic as an interpretive lens (this is one of the critiques of Malek Alloula' Colonial Harem, that its anti-colonial stance is compromised by the lush images he uses).

I think the question, then, is how to consider the relationship between pornography and empathy. If pornography (even as metaphor) always elicits a certain bodily reaction (excitement, disgust, etc.), what does empathy produce? And, more importantly, what might empathy have to foreclose not to be pornographic? Do we lose something important (bodily, affectively) in de-linking pornography from empathy?