Selected Minor Works: When Screens Bleed

A Note on Sex and Violence

Justin E. H. Smith

Somewhere, and I don’t remember where, Arthur Danto describes the power ‘bad words’ have of ‘bleeding out’ of any quotation marks within which one might hope to contain them. Thus in the philosophy of language it has been known for some time that if John says, “Sally said ‘wow’,” John is not really using ‘wow’ in a sentence, he is only mentioning it in connection with Sally’s use. But try the same thing with ‘fuck’ -–supposing say that John and Sally are siblings and John is reporting to his parents–, and you will find that to mention is to use. The profanity bleeds out of the quotation marks meant to separate it from the sentence in which it is contained. FCC broadcasting rules confirm this: not only vulgar rants, but even the titles of vulgar songs, are forbidden.


When it comes to these charged words, the more common way of saying without saying is not through punctuation but through euphemism: freaking, darn, gosh, shoot, etc. But these terms pose no danger of bleeding out into the language surrounding them only because they are already bloodless. Or perhaps, better, they function in language like artificial sweetener in food –giving you something for nothing, but turning out in the end to be nothing themselves–, and should be used just as sparingly. They are a worse habit than cursing. Cicero understood this. “When you speak of the anus,” he wrote, “you call it by a name [‘anus’, i.e., ‘ring’] that is not its own; why not rather call it by its own [i.e., ‘culus’]? If it is indecent, do not use even the substituted name; if not, you had better call it by its own” (Epistolae ad familiares IX xxii). While also showing that one era’s euphemisms are another’s hyper-correct orthophemisms –today ‘anus’ is the preferred term of the straight-faced and literal-minded– when followed out to its logical conclusion the orator’s observation makes a rather strong demand of us: that we eschew all allusion, all talking-around, perhaps even all metaphor. Euphemisms frequently taste artificial, but to insist on pure, direct literalism in all speech at all registers would amount to a severe impoverishment of language.

The difference between the poetic allusion, the insipid euphemism, and the blunt literal description, it seems to me, is strikingly similar to that between erotic art, idiotic softcore simulations, and porn, a three-part distinction which in turn maps onto that between epic battle scenes, cartoonish blood-splattering violence, and snuff films. I would like to consider whether Danto’s insight about profane language might thus be useful for understanding images that fall into any of these genres. Here, I am interested primarily in ontology –in particular the relation of images to reality–, and not in ethics, except insofar as our ethical judgment of the content of an image is relevant to that image’s power to jump out from behind its screen and become part of reality. It seems to me, in short, that just as certain words cannot be contained semantically within quotation marks, certain images cannot be kept morally behind the screens on which we watch them. They bleed out of the pixels meant to contain them, like ‘fuck’ bleeds out of its punctuational container. (Need I plead that I did not just say ‘fuck’, but only mentioned it? Undoubtedly, the editor of a less enlightened review would judge that I did, and ask me to garble it with dollar signs and asterisks. Fine. I confess I did use it. That is precisely my point.)

The images that seem least capable of bleeding in this way are the ones that rely, curiously, on copious quantities of fake blood. The more the red dye spills, the less infectious the image seems. It is a weighty decision to watch an Iraqi beheading video. It is not a weighty decision to watch Helloween or Child’s Play. A psychologically mature adult should be able to watch anything acted without coming away tainted. Martin Amis recounts: “As the credits rolled on Child’s Play 3, I felt no urge or prompting to go out and kill somebody. And I also knew why. It’s nothing to boast about, but there is too much going on in my head for Chucky to gain sway in there.” Child’s Play, it seems, has roughly as much to do with violence as saying “gosh” has to do with blasphemy. It is the same unreasonable fundamentalist who would attempt to supress the one and the other.

I think most of us would have the same opinion of Emmanuelle or The Story of O. These are harmless entertainments: they do not bleed out of the screen with moral consequences for the real people watching it. But isn’t ‘real’ porn more like an Iraq beheading video than it is like ‘erotica’? With few exceptions (Bruno Dumont, Nagisa Oshima, Vincent Gallo: all predictably received as enfants terribles), it is still not possible to have sex qua actor. That is, if you are an actor having sexual intercourse in your role in front of a camera, then like it or not you are also having sex in your real life. It is an action that cannot be contained within the bounds of a fiction. There are at least some actions, then, that can’t be executed in the name of artistic integrity, actions that, even if attempted in the aims of art, inevitably prove to be uncontainable within the art for which they were performed and end up constituting some small corner of reality. What distinguishes these actions –let us call them ‘radioactive’— from the safe kind? What do they say about art and its relationship to reality?

It seems that the list of such actions has no existence independently of evolving community standards. Consider for example our culture’s rapidly changing attitude towards smoking, and how this has impacted art. A New York Times article of January 28 reports: “England’s [smoking] ban, which begins July 1, allows actors to smoke only ‘if the artistic integrity of the performance makes it appropriate for them to smoke.’” Other rules in other places are stricter. Smoking, like sex, seems increasingly to be one of those activities that cannot be contained within the simulated world that hosts the other actions of characters on a stage or in front of a camera. In contrast with the world of Tennessee Williams, these days a character smoking is a person smoking.

It is worth noting that sex involves bodily fluids which may seep through pores or sores, and smoking, as its enemies have driven home ad nauseam, involves the transmission of airborne particles into the lungs and bloodstreams of all who come near the smoker. Fluids and vapors are at stake in these radioactive actions, not just sights and sounds.

Why is this distinction important? Aren’t sound waves and light rays just as much a part of reality as fluids and particles? Against those who claimed that the introduction of sound marked the end of the ‘pure’ cinematic form of the silent film, André Bazin has argued that in 1929 a dream that had run through much of the history of 19th-century technology was finally realized: the mechanical recording of a larger sliver of reality than what is given to any one of the senses individually. The 19th-century had phonographic recording, and it had photographic recording, but only with Al Jolson’s Jazz Singer were we able to have both at once.

One might reasonably ask Bazin: if what you are interested in is registering reality mechanically, why stop at sight and sound? Why not give the people smells, tastes, and feels as well? One thing to note right away is that, physically, the senses are not all analogous. Sights and sounds can be recorded, but the only way to capture a smell and to deliver it at a later time is not to record it but to capture the smell itself. It doesn’t make any sense to speak of a ‘recording’ of a smell. If you are smelling something, this is because there are particles of that thing entering your nose. If you are seeing or hearing something, this is admittedly because there are light rays or sound waves entering your ears or eyes, but in the case of recording they need not be coming from the thing of which they give you an impression. That thing may be on the other side of the world, may have ceased to exist a century ago, and what you are sensing, even if dependent on that thing, is by no means a part of it in the way that aromatic particles are literally taken from some source material. These same points may be made a fortiori for tastes. ‘Feels’ deserve their own analysis, but suffice it to say here that they are more like tastes and smells than like sights and sounds.

As a result of this physical difference, I believe there are fundamental reasons why cinema could never expand beyond sight and sound, even if John Waters experimented with ‘odorama’ cards in the 1970s. To incorporate smells or tastes or feels would not be to enhance the art form, in the way that the addition of sounds to sights no doubt did. It would be to change activities altogether: from the creation of visual art, to what is today called ‘virtual reality’. That is to say, one can watch and hear a movie as an external spectator, whereas if one is smelling and tasting and feeling, one is necessarily a participant. Movies disclose worlds to us, to speak with Cavell, whereas virtual reality would enworld us.

Yet perhaps certain sights and sounds are capable of having a physiological and psychical effect comparable in force to the vapors and fluids that penetrate the body and that consequently inspire legislation and moral concern. Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others: “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.” I take this to mean that certain images are such that the spectator/participant distinction collapses in looking at them: to watch is to be implicated, just as there is no way to experience the tastes of a meal but by joining the diners. In the case of snuff films and pornography, the power to bleed off the screen is so strong that even the time delay, even the assurance that everything you are seeing is already a fait accompli, does not seem to make a difference. The time delay does make some difference of course—to watch live webcam pornography is on many accounts morally indistinguishable from a visit to a prostitute; to watch a live snuffing online is to be an accomplice to murder, while once a snuff film is available, the deed has been done, and our decision to watch can have no retroactive influence.

But again, the time delay is somehow not enough to make all the moral difference. It’s impossible, of course, but I want to say that Iraq beheadings and gonzo porn bleed off the screen by travelling in time. Their presentness is not entirely diminished by the fact that we are watching them on playback. Consider in this connection the French verb for what audience members do at live spectacles: “assister.” To go to the theater is to “assist” in its performance, as obviously the performance would not be a performance if there were no audience. Students “assist” at lectures, and witnesses “assist” at executions. At the movies, one does not “assist,” one just “watches.” Families of the victims of Timothy McVeigh, interestingly, were satisfied to “assist” at his lethal injection by way of closed-circuit television: TV, in its original, live function is a way of circumventing boundaries imposed by space, but not by time. Film, though, is in general the medium that shows events at a remove in both time and space. Yet somehow this remove disappears in porn and snuff. To watch is for the event itself to be relived, and somehow almost to cause the real people on the screen to relive the event (even if they are now headless). To watch is to “assist”, with all the moral repercussions this verb implies in English. As Linda Lovelace testified, every time a man watches Deep Throat, she is being raped all over again. This is of course believable only if one believes Lovelace was raped in the first place, for the moral status of the time-delayed “assistance” derives from the moral status of the original event.


The two most well-known films set in Italy under the Nazi occupation, Rossellini’s Open City of 1946 and Pasolini’s Saló from 1975, both share the view that fascists are the true anarchists, but differ as to how the anarchic freedom that fascism affords the victors ought to be used. The thirty years that separate the two seem only to have strengthened the Italian view (Visconti’s Götterdämmerung is another example) of the Nazis as sexual perverts.

In Saló, a clique of top Nazis and their clerical collaborators kidnap two dozen or so local Italian teens, and take them off to a secret castle to force them into sexual slavery. The men are bored with conventional sex, of course, and as the film wears on the fantasies they act out grow increasingly exremental and bloody. They are revaluing all values, creating from scratch a world à rebours, etc.

It strikes me that satanism, sadomasochism, any sort of celebration of the dark side in the form of communal rites can’t but remain stuck in the mode of parody. They are effective in providing a kinky rush, but as a way of life they must be difficult to sustain. This for me was the (likely unintended) lesson of Saló. It is an intriguing thought experiment to envision what a total subversion of all ‘bourgeois’ values would really look like: where society says kiss your lover, strike her instead; if society serves nourishing food, we’ll serve toxic excrement (a concoction of chocolate and orange marmelade in the film), etc. A certain pessimistic view of modern morality, moreover, and one that no doubt rubbed off on Pasolini (he cites Blanchot and Klossowski in his film’s ‘bibliography’), would have it that bourgeois codes of conduct only mask the violence we are all inflicting on the other all the time, that the order subverted in Saló is a lie, while what goes on in the castle in Saló is somehow an acknowledgment of the truth about human beings.

I for my part would really rather not eat shit, and I suspect that this aversion has more to do with my evolutionary history than with my boring conventional morality. Perhaps for this reason, my experience of Saló was rather like the one Martin Amis had watching Child’s Play. I was unmoved; my view of the world and of my place in it was left unshaken. I was mildly concerned when I learned that the actors involved were, rumor had it, underage, and that for that reason the legality of the film has been disputed throughout the years. But my sense has been that the nubile young things came out of the experience intact, far closer to Dakota Fanning after Hounddog than to Daniel Pearl after his most memorable screen appearance.

Realism as the end of cinema, Bazin thinks, extends back to the discovery in the mid-19th century of the possibility of mechanical recording of sights and sounds. Today, every yokel in the first world, and a growing number in the third, can record both just by slipping that little object we still insist on calling a ‘phone’ out of his pocket and holding it up to the world. Saddam Hussein’s hanging was a far more perfect achievement of realism than The Bicycle Thief. But surely realism as an aesthetic end was not meant to come to this. Di Sica and Rossellini wanted that newsreel feel, but not to the extent that their films would be mistaken for news. Curiously, to the extent that realism is an aesthetic end, it can only be accomplished through simulation. To the extent that cinema is to be an art, it must build up an alternate world out of mechanical projections of this one, rather than simply reproducing this one. And just as good speech will slide neither into insipid euphemism nor blunt literalism, good cinema will not make too much use of fake blood, and will not forget that real blood (as well for the most part as real bodily secretions of other sorts) cannot be deployed without bleeding right through the screen.

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