Violence and Representation (1980)

"Violence and Representation" in Impulse (Toronto), 8:4 (Autumn 1980), pp. 34-35; reprinted in ZG (London, Eng), no, 2 (1981), p. 3. Republished in Impulse Archaeology, ed. Eldon Garnet, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005, pp. 53-54.


Violence and Representation

During the early years of pop art, Andy Warhol took newspaper photographs of violence and icons of movie stars as subjects for his silk-screen paintings. There were car crashes, race riots, suicides, and electric chairs, caught in the casual indifference of newspaper print, and at the same time, as if by contrast, the calm, hieratic close-ups of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. The conjunction shows more than mass fascination with these two types of media imagery. More than an opposition, there is an essential tie between representations of disasters and icons. (The middle term between disaster and icon, condensed in Warhol’s paintings of Jackie Kennedy after the assassination of John Kennedy, shows that death can be represented only as the catastrophic, and its violence displaced by the iconic.)

Whether engaged in reading an image of disaster or an icon, the impulses are the same. One image does not serve to attract and the other to repel. Against our expectation, we find a covert attraction to disaster as well as a violent reaction to an image of beauty. The chaos of violence finds ambivalent response in the formalized expression of the icon. Violence is not only attracted to the iconic; violence directs representation.

Human violence, once recorded, is perceived and dealt with collectively, as a representation. Violence is not simply a disruption within the orderly; it is a mediated effect; it is not passively received, but actively produced by artist and spectator within representation.

In our daily lives, we usually see violence in a representation—in movies, on television. Or we “witness” it on television news or in newspaper photographs, filtered through recording devices. In movies and television, violence is ordered and introduced by the plot; in the news, by written or verbal commentary.

A newspaper photograph, presumably, is a primary “unmediated” representation of violence. Scanned by a matrix of dots and reduced to the indifferentiation of the newspaper page, the image and its meaning must be secured by a caption. This lack of clarity in the reproductive process, its noisy indistinctness, reflects the reduction of difference (and hence the possibility of meaning) that violence introduces into the orderly.

Before representation (if that truly exists), violence is unarticulated; it is without limit. Society orders itself and functions by differentiating, by establishing the limits of inside and outside. Consequently, a limit has to be set to violence which seems a forceful entry of chaos into the order of society; and that limit is a representation—a substitution of one mark for another: the mark of representation for the mark of violence. A community uses violence, creates an economy of violence, to mark limits. And if the raw newspaper photograph, while signalling violence, cannot adequately effect it, in a failure to cathect the reader, then violence must be directed to where it helps construct another image.

While violence may help the artist form an image, it also structures the viewer’s response to an image. Violence may be most apparent in a hieratic face or figure—an icon; in front of such depictions, a scene of violent rivalry is enacted.

In an image, an artist imitates a figure; in front of that image, the viewer imitates the artist, but mirrors the image, i.e., imitates it. René Girard describes the violence that arises through mimetic or imitative rivalry: “If one individual imitates another when the latter appropriates some object, the result cannot fail to be rivalry or conflict. Such conflict is observable in animals; beyond a certain intensity of rivalry the antagonists tend to lose sight of their common object and focus on each other, engaging in so-called prestige rivalry. In human beings, the process rapidly tends toward interminable revenge, which should be defined in mimetic or imitative terms.” Rivalry is a result of imitation; and mimesis derives from theft.

Girard, in his Violence and the Sacred, sees the origin of society and all cultural forms in murder. Recoiling from this original divisive violence, a community creates a set of prohibitions which includes a mechanism for redirecting violence outside itself. This is the role of sacrifice based on substitution of a scapegoat. Repeated in ritual and communal crises, this arbitrary substitution protects the community by deflecting internal violence to victims outside itself or on its margins, victims unable to be revenged.

Emulation becomes rivalry, when one appropriates the object or desires of another, leads to conflict which spreads through the community. To end this interminable revenge, representing eye for eye and tooth for tooth, is the function of the scapegoat, because the scapegoat cannot be revenged.

The scapegoat must resemble the person it substitutes (which it represents) in order that the violent and vengeful impulse be satisfied. This is the mimetic function of the scapegoat. But, at the same time, the scapegoat must be different, recognized as different, in order that it not be confused with the original object and continue the chain of vengeance. It must represent the violence that afflicts the community, allowing the community to differentiate by excluding what is different: the violence of the other. Representation is a marking preparing for exclusion. Marking is a stigma, which allows the surrogate victim to be identified as different; it sets the limits of exclusion; and it locates the marks of violence for sacrifice.

The structure of mimetic rivalry persists in advertising. There is no necessary connection between the advertisment and buying the product—mimesis that leads to purchase, an identification between seeing and having the object. Rather, the man or woman in the advertisement is identified with the sacrificial scapegoat. To prevent a break in the chain of buying because of a disastrous disruption of the system, the mimetic figure substitutes for the internal violence of that system. The violence of production is deflected to an image. Advertising does not direct desire toward consumption as much as create a model that mirrors and reinforces the violent construction of the body through the socialization of work. For any society, we expect to find a relation between the representation of violence, the image of the body, and social control of the body.

Two desires on the same object—the advertising figure’s, which signals the desirability of a product, and the reader’s—leads to mimetic rivalry. This may ensure capitalist competition, but it ends in violence. To allow that conflict to work (as religion recoiling from original violence) and at the same time not to lead to actual violence, capitalism changes its mimetic model, year by year, creating new representations and limits. Mimesis leads to violence, and diffuses violence. Fashion is essentially mimetic, and sacrificial: its figures are marginal and excluded. Society chooses its figures to create its representations and be models, while at the same time violently excluding them. Art, fashion, violence erupt at the margin: the new is the monstrous other.