The narrative uses of violence


Here’s another one of those articles I really liked: Steffen Hantke‘s (2001) ‘Violence incorporated: John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the Uses of Gratuitous Violence in Popular Narrative’.

In it, Hantke uses the film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, to consider the uses of gratuitous violence in popular narrative. He considers the function(s) of violence in narrative and the way in which such functions engage and reassure the audience… really interesting!

Hantke begins: “The current public discussion of media violence is shaped by two fundamental assumptions. One supposes that representations of violence reflect the steadily rising level of violence in society, while the other assumes that representations either cause or at least significantly contribute to the increase of violence.” (p.29)

“What I aim to do,” he explains, “…is to intervene on the microscopic level, tracing the rules of discourse regarding the representation of physical violence in a specific text and then drawing conclusions from this example regarding the larger cultural discourses surrounding it.” He does this by analysing a text that ‘breaks the rules’, as it were, around representations of violence: John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Hantke argues “that all consumers, regardless of their demographic niche, want, or are willing to tolerate, a certain degree of violence, if portrayed in a certain manner, justified by certain moral imperatives, and legitimized by certain narrative structures – violence, in other words, that has been socially and culturally sanctioned by the proper forms of aesthetic coding.” (p.32) “The absence of these ‘proper’ forms of aestheticization,” he declares, “is exactly what makes McNaughton’s film Henry such an unsettling experience for the audience.” (p.32) It is a film that deploys violence “without the expected legitimation [of that violence]. Violence, in other words, exploited rather than employed. Gratuitous violence.” (p.34)

“The absence of a pragmatic legitimation registers as something intolerable, to some extent via categories established by social consensus, such as taste or tact – categories which themselves are tied into notions of proportionality and functionality. The absence of a proper narrative rationale has alarming consequences for the viewers and their sense of participation in the narrative process; if violence is an end in itself, then I, the viewer, must be watching, and enjoying, it for exactly what it is, and not for something else it stands for. Violence as a signifier points to nothing but itself as a signified is a thought that is all the more unsettling because my enjoyment somehow appears to erase the aesthetic distance between myself and the spectacle. My collaboration is suddently exposed as complicity, just as the violence depicted suddenly ceases to take place at a safe aesthetic distance.
Hence, violence needs to be functionally useful as an aesthetic, dramatic, narrative, affective, thematic, or contextual device. Violence must be made to mean something, to point to something beyond itself. Once the narrative engages it in a functional context, it becomes invisible as such to the extent that it is made to work for an end beyond itself.” (p.37) … “The distinction between, for example, a violent act and a loving act of compassion is elided in exactly the sense in which both equally accelerate, obstruct, or complicate the narrative.” (p.37)

What is curiously absent from the story, which is after all the story of a murderer, is a detective figure, a character who embodies, in Jenkins’ words, ‘the discourse of rationality on which the fiction depends, and through which order is imposed upon an otherwise inexplicable world’ (109). If there was such a force or figure, its effects would not only be felt in the moral nature of the narrative universe, as Jenkins suggests, but perhaps even more so in its narrative cohesion. The world of Henry is an ‘inexplicable world,’ not only because it does not meet the requirements of rationality, but also because it cannot be properly narrated.
Since there is no concrete detective figure opposing the killer, there is no dramatic tension about who is going to prevail in the end. Since there is no dramatic tension, there is no chance for proper narrative closure. The killer will, by his nature, continue to kill, as long as there is no counterforce stopping him. …The impression of many viewers that the film’s ‘tone’ is laconic, deadpan, or emotionally detached, is less due to its visual style than to its narrative organization, which refuses to prioritize, weigh, or compare in order to create a sense of proper plot.” (p.40)

Noting that there is no ‘end’ to Henry’s violence in this film (it is happening before the ‘beginning’ and will continue after the ‘end’), Hantke writes: “Violence, once it is incorporated in this ‘serial narrative,’ becomes conspicuous, because, if the narrative does not go or is not headed anywhere, what function can violence possibly have in it? It cannot cause, hinder, or accelerate events. Hence, its demonstrable lack of purpose makes it appear excessive. Its lack of a proportionate functional frame makes it appear gratuitous.” (p.41)

“In uncoupling representations of violence from their instrumental purpose, that is, by making them appear gratuitous, the moral narrative which we conventionally and tacitly superimpose upon the events suddenly appears no longer as an inevitable way of seeing the world. Instead of being written into the very fabric of narrative, it appears freestanding, a cultural construct whose integrity and credibility rests on nothing more than social convention. The ‘social system that is the source of any morality that we can imagine’ (14), as White puts it, becomes caught up in the sense of arbitrariness that permeates Henry.” (p.42)

“…narratives can raise the question of what violence ultimately means; what effects it has on those who perpetrate, suffer, or witness it; how we are to assess its effects from an empirical, social, or moral point of view; or how it helps to constitute the environment we life in.” (p.35)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Steffen Hantke (2001) Violence incorporated: John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the Uses of Gratuitous Violence in Popular Narrative College Literature; Spring 28(2); pp.29-47

Reference is to: White, Hayden (1990) The Context of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Jenkins, Philip (1994) Using Murder: The Social construction of Serial Homicide. New York: DeGruyter

Other interesting references include:Fraser, John (1974) Violence in the Arts. New York: Cambridge University Press

Grixti, Joseph (1989) Terrors of Uncertainty: The Cultural contexts of Horror Fiction. New York: Routledge

Seltzer, Mark (1998) Serial Killers: Death and life in America’s wound Culture. New York: Routledge


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