I Wanna Destroy

Towards an Aesthetic of Violence
by Erica Weitzman

I’m not talking about / a Beatles song / written 100 years / before I was born / They’re all talking about / the round and round / but who’s got the real / antiparent-culture sound / I know nothing’s / gonna be all right again —The Nation of Ulysses, “N-Sub Ulysses” (1992)


ational Gallery, Washington D.C., 1990: I turn into the next room and it’s there in front of me, impossible to avoid or even turn away from; it seems to suck the room itself into a vanishing point that never coalesces, into its infinite depths of ash and devastation. I feel suddenly frightened, as if the scene is not merely a painting on a wall, but all reality. On the floor beside me, by the same artist, is a quarter-sized replica of a charred fighter plane, laden with bundles of books in what turns out to be lead leaf. There is nothing written in the books. It takes me a moment to pull myself away. Cherry Hill, NJ, 1993: Times have changed a little: at one point during the show in this suburban basement (the walls are faux-grain plywood panel), the massive, green-haired front-man starts talking about how difficult it is to be a fat man in American society. When he breaks

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down in actual tears, a girl from the audience comes up to him; they hug for a good half-minute. But the song the band subsequently launches into is no less desperate for all that: “I’m an android! I’m an android!” the singer screams into the microphone; during the breaks he picks up a trombone and works it like a bicycle pump over the speeded-up guitars. It is at once totally incoherent and surprisingly beautiful. During the last song, the drummer jumps up on his drums and, banging the cymbals the whole way down, smashes the set into pieces. FIFTEEN YEARS EARLIER…
Gonna finish up what / Goering Goebbels started —The Deadbeats, “Let’s Shoot Maria” (1978)

It goes without saying that violence is not a new phenomenon. In fact, there are good arguments suggesting that violence is the determining factor of human society, if not the human psyche itself. A total understanding of the origins of violence is without a doubt beyond the scope of this paper. This paper, therefore, limits itself to discussing what I will call the “aesthetic of violence”: violence as it manifests itself in cultural productions, in art, and especially violence as art in itself—violence, as it were, as self-conscious art form. There are an innumerable number of works of art which portray violence, and their history goes from the Iliad to King Lear to The Death of Marat to Badlands, but this is not what I mean. Such works, to greater or lesser extents, treat violence as something external: violent acts are portrayed because these things exist; to portray them objectively is to be “true to life” or “realistic.” Works based on an aesthetic of violence also portray violence. But they, as opposed to these other works, take part in the violence they portray: they assault the spectator, they turn against their own media and foundations and mimetic principles, and they glorify violence as a creative, regenerative force, or even as a kind of beauty in itself. In Guy Debord’s formulation: “Not a
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negation of style, but the style of negation.”1 These principles, too, are not new by the time anything called postmodernism rolls around. In one sense, the “style of negation” is the principle of all avant garde movements and certainly with the advent of modernism and Dada it is well in play. But for all that Dadaism was a reflection of its historical time, its aims seem limited to the art world, taking a hammer—even if sometimes a literal one—to outdated notions of truth and beauty. The aesthetic of violence in the postmodern age, on the other hand, is comprehensive: it aims to smash everything. “These are violent times!” the cry goes up, in some cases with alarm, in others, with a kind of bitter glee. In the 1960’s and, especially, the seventies, the ideas of aesthetic negation, nihilism, violence, etc.—this time combined, as a matter of principle, with the more “ordinary” kind of violence—perform the very crises of these decades on the stage, in the galleries, in the libraries, and in the streets. Thus I would like to make a claim in these pages for the aesthetic of violence—in which “the fractured nature of perception in an alienated, media-saturated society”2 plays itself out as tragi-comedy and grotesque—as nothing less than the artistic representation of postmodernism itself. VILE MEANS…
This was an adequate enough performance, as improvisations go. The only problem was that my entire education, everything I had ever been told or had told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised: I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no “meaning” beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience. —Joan Didion, “The White Album” (1979)

“In June of this year [1968]” reads the medical report—her own—which Didion includes in her essay, “patient experienced an attack of vertigo,

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nausea, and a feeling that she was going to pass out. A thorough medical evaluation elicited no positive findings and she was placed on Elavil, Mg 20, tid…The Rorschach record is interpreted as describing a personality in process of deterioration with abundant signs of failing defenses and increasing inability of the ego to mediate the world of reality.”3 On June 10, 1968, the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence was formed.4 In this case, legal and academic evaluation elicited several volumes of findings. Signs of failing defenses, however, continued. “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images”5: the image of a million suburban families, each clustered around the television in their individual houses, is a familiar one from the thirties onward—so familiar, in fact, that we can easily forget how much this signifies. (The infinite mise en abyme potential of mass media, certainly, is evident in the recurrence of this very image whenever the news media or a film wants to show public reaction to an event: mediation mediated.) One cause of this is technological—ever-cheaper gadgets and the money with which to buy them, not to mention the increase in leisure time with which to enjoy them. Part of this is sociological: population growth, migration to cities, and increased communication across national and ethnic borders require, at once for adequate “control,” profit, and simple convenience, a greater homogenization and standardization. The world itself gets bigger: “In recent decades the ability of one society to change the environment of another has been geographically expanded, thus extending the boundaries of our ‘critical’ environment. As this has taken place, we have become increasingly dependent upon others, particularly the mass media, to provide us with a survey of a larger proportion of the environment relative to what we can personally observe.”6 In other words, our technological advances and increasing cosmopolitanism have made us precisely into a society of spectators. Perhaps no social critic or philosopher has expressed the situation more completely—and more sinisterly—than this Warner Communications bulletin from 1977:
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Having allowed technology to create the problem, man has begun using technology to redress it. With the exponentially increased availability of all forms of communication, the media of ‘entertainment’ have been pressed into service to provide the individual with models of experience, opportunities for self-recognition, and the ingredients of identity…a marriage of culture and technology unprecedented in history, and a commensurate revolution in the human sense of self.7 This heaven / gives me migraine —Gang of Four, “Natural’s Not In It” (1979)

Not all revolutions are necessarily for the better, however. Debord understands this when he writes, “Behind the glitter of the spectacle’s distractions, modern society lies in thrall to the global domination of a banalizing trend that also dominates it at each point where the most advanced forms of commodity consumption have seemingly broadened the panoply of roles and objects available to choose from…power and leisure—the power to decide and the leisure to consume…are the alpha and the omega of a process that is never questioned.”8 “The promise of a new life summed up in a few pennies less for eggs and cheese,”9 writes Greil Marcus of Gang of Four’s acidly satirical “Damaged Goods.” And on their song “Return the Gift”: “It’s a little tale about how an individual shrinks—how one becomes not a subject but merely an object of history—when he or she wins a radio give-away contest. It’s a song about the way the winner exchanges the multitudes of a unique personality for capital’s reductive prize: fear…the fear that, having accepted a symbol of a good life…you will cease to exist.” “I [had] the illusion that I could any minute order from room service a revisionist theory of my own history, garnished with a vanda orchid. I watched Robert Kennedy’s funeral on a verandah at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, and also the first reports from My Lai.”10 Elsewhere: “We grow accustomed to the weirdest of juxtapositions: the serious and the trivial, the comic and the tragic…a fantasia of effects that resembles

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the debris left by a storm.”11 The essay in which this latter quotation occurs presents a stunning—and all-too-familiar—illustration of this in the Huntley-Brinkley report of the Robert Kennedy assassination; I quote the transcription in full:
Chet Huntley: Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot in the head and gravely wounded early today before hundreds of people in his political headquarters in a Los Angeles hotel, a month and a day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, seconds after he had made a speech celebrating his victory over Senator Eugene McCarthy in the California Democratic presidential primary… Continuing the reporting of this event, the scene was shifted to the hospital: Jack Perkins: The latest medical bulletin…says Senator Robert Kennedy remains in extremely critical condition… Frank Mankiewicz, the Senator’s press secretary was then shown reading the medical bulletin. Perkins had some more to say, and then the camera returned to Chet Huntley for further reporting of certain aspects of the situation. He was followed by the face and clipped voice of David Brinkley. David Brinkley: …we have assembled some of the film from last night, beginning with the Senator’s victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel, after he won the California primary. The film, lasting several minutes, showed the speech, the cheers from the crowd, the moment of the shooting and the ensuing pandemonium and near-panic, the frantic and repeated requests for a doctor, the wounded Senator on the floor, police cars taking the suspect away to jail with crowd reactions as he is brought out and sirens fading into the distance, and then the grief-stricken crowd in the hall again. Then this: Announcer: The Huntley-Brinkley report is produced by NBC News and brought to you in color by Newport, the smoothest tasting menthol cigarette— Newport king size, and the new extra long Newport Deluxe 100’s. Then a filmed commercial showing a frivolous barbershop scene:

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Said a patron whose name was McNair, As the barber was trimming his hair; “This new cigarette has the roughest taste yet! Who’s got a smooth one to spare?” Then up spoke a fellow named Dave Who had just finished having a shave: “Newport, you’ll find, is a much smoother kind, With a taste about which you will rave.” Chorus: Ooooooh, Smother Newport, Fresher Newport— Smoother, more refreshing cigarette!12

Once human sensibility is thus sacrificed to the demands of expediency and capital, “all narrative was sentimental. In this light all connections were equally meaningful, and equally senseless.”13
Go to college / Go to war / Get a job in Daddy’s store —Rhino 39, “Xerox 12” (1979) We got the neutron bomb! / Drop it! / We don’t want it / anyway! —The Weirdos, “We Got the Neutron Bomb” (1978)

“American students have historically succumbed to the annual spring throes of the panty-raid syndrome, but the current wave of campus confrontations is essentially an unprecedented phenomenon.”14 A controllable youthful exuberance—”the panty-raid syndrome”—has become, by 1968, something actively threatening. It is a commonplace that the seventies were a decade of disillusionment. Much of that disillusionment, of course, was economic with the slowing or even reversal of the post-war boom in America, and the ripples of it as felt by the rest of the world. As Jon Savage points out in his book on the early British punk scene, this recession was particularly felt by young people; less cash meant less kids buying less stuff. The youth market was no longer as infinitely tappable a resource as in the glorious bobby-soxer days. Hordes of idle teenagers with empty pockets bred not celebration but suspicion. Hence discipline, frustration, and violence.15 And now that the glow of

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winning the war had officially faded, “The whole idea of ‘consensus’ that had dominated postwar politics and social life was disintegrating. It was as though the whole postwar ideal of mass consumer enfranchisement… was being proved a sham.”16 Rebellion has a long history, but there is a qualitative difference in rebellion after World War II. “The nineteenthcentury artists were faced with the collapse of Christianity and the end of Hellenism. We are faced with the end of man.”17 After Hiroshima,18 the paradox, not to say the myth, of technological and ethical progress is exposed: “the square world had now made utterly clear its suicidal intentions.”19 As well, eventually, as its murderous ones. After that ultimate in alienated labor, the draft, how could established authority claim to serve the interests of the people? After My Lai, how could it even make the claim to honor? Two decades later, Baudrillard goes even further than Nuttall to imply that America could not be anything but violent; its fundamental attribute is “not only indulgence, but violence, a selfpublicizing, self-justifying violence…the triumphalist violence of the successful revolution.”20 It’s no accident that Penelope Spheeris’s classic documentary on the Los Angeles punk scene is entitled The Decline of Western Civilization. In Baudrillard’s formula, the American idea of “utopia achieved” has violence as inevitable by-product. In light of all these phenomena, “square” shock at long or spiky hair, loud music, sex and scatology becomes more than a little absurd. Nothing any counterculture has ever done has been more violent than the behavior of so-called respectable society. In 1968, The Task Force on Mass Media and Violence concluded that “the claim that the television world of entertainment and violence is an accurate reflection of the real world clearly is refuted”21 by the findings of their survey. This survey, however, limits itself to examining the frequency of people’s being “slapped or kicked,” “punched or beaten,” “knifed,” “choked,” or “shot at.”22 The sociologists conducting this study cannot even imagine the possibility of a generalized, latent, or vicarious violence, for which the above actions (as well as their television portrayals) are merely metaphors. By the end of the seventies,
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We are more aware of the ugly because human hopes for its reduction, in all of its forms, were so raised by technical advances, because those very advances have, along with the gains, created ugliness (affluence = effluence?), because the incredible ugliness of war continues to pollute the earth, and because age-old problems have rapidly become more visible and more overwhelming, as the ‘dump-dwellers’ of the world, living in a sea of trash, expand into mega-populations.”23

Meanwhile, “the only thing we could do was sit in humiliation and wait for extinction.”24 This state of affairs can only go on so long without repercussions.
I got no use for drugs / I never get high / I wanna shoot a cop / I wanna watch him die / Running through the sixties / Was a whole lotta fun / But a lotta these pigs / Forgot how to run —Black Randy and the Metrosquad, “Trouble at the Cup” (1978)

By the early, and certainly the late seventies, it was impossible to ignore the failure of earlier counterculture movements. Either they had failed nobly (like Western communist movements, effectively crushed by the same tanks that rolled into Hungary and Czechoslovakia), or ignobly, by “selling out” to the mainstream and rendering itself impotent by drugs and an egotism almost bourgeois. Despite the “apparent social progress of the free and easy hippie culture that was all around,” all evidence proclaimed that society “wasn’t free and easy: it was repressed and horrible.”25 Thus the counterculture movements of the seventies and the aesthetic of violence are perhaps unique; they are a counterculture against not just the mainstream, but also against the reigning countercultures of the day. The mere existence of retro as trend—in 1976, Happy Days was the most popular television show in America26—negates the oppositional value of earlier underground movements. By the late seventies, hippie and beatnik culture had degenerated into lip-service pacifism, acid trips, a watered-down Zen and a tedious free love.27 Jeff Nuttall, writing in 1968 on an article by Allen Ginsburg, effectively nails the coffin shut on hippie culture: “the quick and only way to that peace beyond
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‘desire, anger, grasping, craving’ is to cut your throat…anyone who has no appetite for stress has no appetite for life on human terms, desires merely life on cosmic terms, desires death.”28 The earlier counterculture, in other words, has finally absorbed the latent nihilism of the mainstream. Punk culture thus aims, among other things, at being everything hippie culture is not. This is carried even to the point of their respective drugs of choice: not the passive daydreaminess of marijuana and hallucinogens, but the strident hyper-realism of heroin and speed. In her descriptions of Huey Newton’s arrest and the riots at San Francisco State College, Didion narrates what might be the final breakdown of sixties’ promise: in the former, revolution cynically adopting attributes of mass media to secure its own influence; in the latter, revolution itself becoming entertainment. The incarcerated Black Panther is a mere platitude machine for the cameras, “one of those autodidacts for whom all things specific and personal present themselves as mine fields to be avoided at even at the cost of coherence, for whom safety lies in generalization.”29 And the university demonstration seems “increasingly off-key, an instance of the enfants terribles and the Board of Trustees unconsciously collaborating on a wishful fantasy (Revolution on Campus) and playing it out in time for the six o’ clock news.”30 The movements thus empty themselves of all content, all truly revolutionary force whatsoever: “Get your M / 31 / ‘Cause baby we gonna / Have some fun.”31 The sixties could perhaps be characterized as widespread (or, at least, white) recognition of the inadequacy of existing systems. The seventies embody the despair of the possibility of an alternative.
There are some facts here / which refuse to escape / I could say it stronger / but it’s too much trouble —X, “The World’s a Mess; It’s in My Kiss (1978)

Didion’s essay on the end of the sixties does not demonstrate the aesthetic of violence but its immediate precedent: the aesthetic of boredom, in which everything is flat, fleeting, and utterly banal. At a recording

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session for the Doors—supposedly the musical equivalent of an orgasm, a blinking-out in a transcendent rock ecstasy of sex and death—Didion observes, “My leg had gone to sleep, but I did not stand up…. The producer played back the rhythm track. The engineer said that he wanted to do his deep-breathing exercises. Manzarek ate a hard-boiled egg.”32 This boredom is nothing so much as a narcotized schizophrenia. (Disregarding even Didion’s own history of mental illness, her infamous style—jump-cut organization paired with affectlessness of tone—is a demonstration of just this malady). “Leisure (What do I want to do today?),” writes Marcus, “was replaced by entertainment (What is there to see today?). The potential fact of all possible freedoms was replaced by a fiction of false freedom.” 33 By 1969, even a member of a conservative government commission on violence can propose that
those youths who denounce or ignore all authority, who refuse to defer gratification, who seek to obtain speciously altruistic ends by violent or other antisocial means, who impose on the rights of others by interrupting and by shouting down opposition, and especially those who ‘drop out’ and declare by behavior, appearances and words that nothing is ‘relevant’ or admirable, have perhaps shown an inordinate capacity for observational learning.34

Violence is a way to shock oneself into feeling: to prove, by inflicting and experiencing pain, that one is still a human being. (Schematic as it may be, Burgess’s 1962 A Clockwork Orange demonstrates precisely this tension between a natural “ultraviolence” and a manufactured civility; it is telling that Kubrik’s film adaptation cuts out Burgess’s last chapter, in which the protagonist matures—without brainwashing—beyond his violent impulses.) Without doubt, the aesthetic of violence has its sadistic, aggressive aspect; but—even more so, perhaps (and this is one of the things that, I believe, differentiates it from other avant garde and counterculture movements)—it has a masochistic aspect as well. Its violence is as much that of Alex in A Clockwork Orange as that of Niko in The Deer Hunter, whose reaction to a reality too horrible to bear takes the form of a drugged and objectless self-destruction, suicide as joyless
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game. The self-mutilation of Iggy Pop, of (in imitation and homage as much as anything) G.G. Allin, Sid Vicious and Darby Crash, the selfironizing of postmodern literature, and the burning, layering, and intentional erasure of much contemporary art, all have something in common. John Lydon says: “I saw the Sex Pistols as something completely guiltridden,”35 and Marcus writes on Gang of Four, “It was not about the resistance of the rebel against the ruler. It was about the resistance of the rebel against him or herself.”36 Such statements do not seem possible for the Dadaists or the Situationists or the Woodstock crowd. But by 1975, things had come to this pass. …VILE ENDS
One evening, I sat Beauty on my lap. And I found her bitter. And I raped her. —Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell

“If religion becomes non-religion, corrupt,” writes Nuttall (and by religion I think we can take this as any kind of faith or value), “then art, in order to remain art, must divide itself off from society.”37 “I believe in / Worker’s Evolution / and I believe in / the Final Solution,” sang the Buzzcocks in 1979. Faced with the (arguable) apogee of society’s corruption, what else to oppose it with but the apogee of the anti-social: gratuitous violence. “Long live the Incredible Hulk!” proclaims an anarchist manifesto of 1966, “wildcat strikers, the Nat Turner Insurrection, highschool drop-outs, draft-dodgers, deserters, delinquents, saboteurs and all those soul-brothers, wild-eyed dreamers, real and imaginary heroes of defiance and rebellion who pool their collective resources in the exquisite, material transformation of the world according to desire!!!”38 But even this does not quite go far enough. The Surrealist Group of the Rebel Worker Group of the Chicago Anarchist Horde can still exalt poetry as “breathing like a machine gun, exterminating the blind flags of immediate reality.” Violence is still the means to an end, a weapon of the
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revolution. Though obvious traces of this thinking remain even today, by the late seventies, violence will have also become an end in itself.
Everybody’s gotten in control but me / Medication takes you in at half past three / Everybody’s doing the Prolixin Stomp! —Rhino 39, “Prolixin Stomp” (1979)

The “utopia achieved” of American culture denotes a culture of mass media and spectacle, of latent violence and advertised tranquillity— more, of science and rationality and consensus and everydayness. Disneyland, which opened in 1955, is perhaps the ideal symbol of a culture in which violence itself is gagged, and an eternal pleasantness substitutes for the sublime.39 “This country,” rants Baudrillard, “is beyond hope. Even the trash is clean here, the traffic greased, the movement pacified… [everything here] makes the European dream of death and murder, of motels for suicides, of orgy and cannibalism, just to bring down this perfection of ocean and light, this insane ease of living, the hyperreality of it all.”40 It would be easy to dismiss such statements as neurotic; however, Baudrillard is really only making explicit what artistic and cultural movements have already implicitly enacted. A beauty without conflict is not really beauty, but disease. Thus René Girard notes how “the tendency to erase the sacred, to eliminate it entirely, prepares the ground for the surreptitious return of the sacred, no longer in transcendent, but in imminent form, in the form of violence and knowledge of violence.”41 This is why there is a vast difference between art that portrays violence—while keeping its safe distance—and art that in one way or another enacts its violence, either upon others or upon itself. Tragedy is a response to the passive and antiseptic Society of the Spectacle; it is the one thing that both responds to and underlies “the insipidity of the festival transformed into eternal holiday…the blatantly utopic promises of a ‘universe of leisure.’”42 “Pastiche and schizophrenia” writes Fredric Jameson in “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” are the primary “ways in which the new

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postmodernism expresses the inner truth of that newly emergent social order of late capitalism.”43 The aesthetic of violence attempts to reclaim authenticity, but this time it is in the terms of late capitalism itself, using (or attempting to use) its own techniques and assumptions against it. Revolution will no longer be entertainment: now, entertainment will become revolution. The Media—and all media—become both weapon and target, at once counteracting and reflecting the schizophrenia endemic to society. One of the most salient features of punk fashion as conceived by McLaren and Westwood is its emphasis on text—not text as message, but text as text, so layered and contradictory as to void it of all meaning: “the intention was that [the Sex Pistols] should not be politically explicit, but instead should be an explosion of contradictory, highly charged signs.” Punk fashion expresses “the wish to offer up the body as a jumble of meanings.”44 Gang of Four, one of the most politically astute bands of the early punk era, composed their lyrics in the same way as the Pistols created their outfits, as a dryly ironic collage of commercial clichés: “I do love a new purchase / A market of the senses // Our great expectations / A future for the good / Fornication makes you happy / No escape from society // We all have good intentions / but all with strings attached” (“Natural’s Not in It”). “In view of the disappearance of the prerequisites of communication,” notes Debord, there is no art that “suffers any longer from the disappearance of its own particular ability to communicate.”45 As we have seen, when art becomes merely art—and from there, capital—everything communicates, all at once, in an undifferentiated babble in which Dubuffet is as viable as Delacroix, and selling cigarettes is as important as reporting an assassination. In certain obvious aspects, punk conceived itself as everything society was not. However, it, like so many “postmodern” phenomena, also set itself against society by becoming everything society is. To society’s latent sickness, it matched its blatant one; it saw society’s fragmentation and raised it to the level of psychosis. “They no longer ‘quote’,” Jameson writes of postmodern artists. “They incorporate.”46 The last desperate method of fighting the enThe Violence Issue | 67

emy is to become the enemy. Furthermore, with all things being equal, even the artist cannot separate him or herself from that which is reacted against: simply by creating—simply by existing—one is swallowed by the cultural Blob. The relentless self-questioning and self-ironizing of postmodern theory, the way in which it insists on deconstructing itself as well as those things “external” to it, may be a reflection of this. Without a doubt it is a presence in the aesthetics of the time: “punks rejected the Academy and drew instead from ‘low’ sources: graffiti, underground comics, advertising, car culture, the tarot, blaxploitation, bondage and pornography, surf culture, fifties industrial films, Mad magazine, and the universe of American detritus that winds up in thrift stores. It all got tossed in the blender.”47 The loss of aesthetic norms means that there is no longer a 1 : 1 relationship between parodist and parodied; now, the ratio is 1 : ∞.
Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry…without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic. Pastiche is blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humor.48

If a centered, delimited identity—be it personal, cultural, or artistic—is no longer possible, the only option left is to become a patchwork of all identities. The gamble is on whether one will, in self-sacrifice to the chaos, gain some sort of mastery over it—or whether one will simply lose one’s identity entirely.
I’m Darby Crash / A social blast / Chaotic master I’m Darby Crash / Your Meccas gash / Prophetic stature I’m Darby Crash / A one way match / Demonic flasher —The Germs, “Circle One” (1978)

Despite his being born a good century before Sid Vicious, Rimbaud may be the first—and greatest—disciple of the aesthetics of violence. Af-

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ter the failed high-modernism of his verse works and his Illuminations,49 A Season in Hell unleashes Rimbaud’s disgust with the modern world— ”We eat fever with our watery vegetables. And drunkenness! and tobacco! and ignorance! and worship!”50—not just at the world, but on the work itself. Even disregarding Rimbaud’s legendary “career suicide,” the distorted, aggressively anti-classical language, the appropriation of all dictions from high liturgy to gutter slang, the fragmentation of narrative, the relentless self-ironizing make up an almost textbook example of performative artistic violence. Rimbaud consigns himself to hell. And his art is the hell he consigns himself to. He himself makes sure of it. In one way, the aesthetic of violence has as its true predecessor not the exuberance of Dada, but the gravity of ancient tragedy and further, the ritual of the sacrifice. When evangelists passed out flyers at the final Sex Pistols show that read “There’s a Johnny Rotten in each of us, and he doesn’t need to be liberated—he needs to be crucified!”51 they must have seemed merely part of the act. The violence of the punk aesthetic goes almost without saying. But again, their violence differs both from, say, the violence of the Watts riots or that of Goya’s paintings in that it is both self-conscious (unlike the former) and performative (unlike the latter). It is almost violence camp.52 Marcus describes Sid Vicious in concert as “a representation of a representation, even streaked with his own gore, his arm bandaged from a self-inflicted gouging”; in fact the show, the entire punk project is “an act: a collective attempt to prove that the physical representation of an aesthetic representation could produce reality, or at least real blood.”53 The aesthetic of violence is the sacrifice ceremony, played out not in the temple but in the mass media, with not a scapegoat, but culture itself as the sacrificial victim. The Situationists aimed at “the revolution of everyday life”; the “vanguard” of culture as a separate, commodified, spectacular entity was no less than “its own disappearance.”54 Thus there are no longer any lines between performance and reality, “an image of an image” and the Truth. Both the artifice of art and the realness of reality dissolve. The fourth wall crumbles; ancient tragedy is dragged back into reality and time in the act of its performance.
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A thousand kids / Bury their parents —X, “The Unheard Music” (1978)

The festival leading up to the sacrifice, as Girard notes, is always a festival in which values are not simply discarded, but specifically inverted. In other words, it is parodic: “the modern observer notes above all the transgression of taboos. Sexual promiscuity is tolerated, sometimes even required…[there is] a general erasing of differences: social and familial hierarchies are temporarily suppressed or inverted…a mixture of discordant colors…the use of costume [travesti: drag]…unnatural comings-together, the most unexpected encounters.”55 Compare this to Marcus’s account of the British punk scene: “What had been good—love, money, and health—was now bad; what had been bad—hate, mendicity, and disease—was now good. The equations ran on, replacing work with sloth, status with reprobation, fame with infamy, celebrity with obscurity, professionalism with ignorance, civility with insult, nimble fingers with club feet.”56 The Germs. The Weirdos. Dottie Danger. Johnny Rotten. Publik Enema. Richard Hell. The Deadbeats. The Subhumans. Pat Smear. The Zeros. The Dishrags. Chuck Biscuits. Gerry Useless. Dinah Cancer. Donna Rhia. Punk pseudonyms and band names were partly a means to reinvent oneself—initiation into the cult—, partly the defense mechanism of the nerdy kid on the playground, pointing out his own flaws before anyone else gets the chance. But they were also Debord’s détournement taken to the extreme. Punk names “not only turned the insult on its head, but meant that the owners of these pseudonyms were often required to act out the pejorative definitions of others. Identity was thus created and reinforced by hostility.”57 The cultivated ugliness of punk is an estranging device in which the goal is not just to offend an offensive society as much as possible, but also to construct a self outside and above society. “The sacrificial victim has, therefore, a monstrous aspect; one can no longer see in him what one sees in the other members of the community”58: if one is to be sacrificed anyway (as many people must have felt then, whether instinctively or objectively), one must make
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oneself worthy of the privilege. The forms détournement can take are several. Like punk’s emphasis on filth and aggression, Anselm Kiefer’s use of nature and myth evokes violence to both oppose and act out the failed project of rationalism. Civilization vs. Nature is an old, essentially Romantic viewpoint, even if Kiefer plays it for higher stakes. (It should be noted that, however much America implicitly threatens mass murder in the name of reason, Kiefer’s Germany has already delivered it.) But Kiefer’s nature is anything but the seat of divine wisdom and grace. His landscapes are the landscapes of the post-apocalypse, the post-Holocaust (in both senses of the word). More importantly to the aesthetic of violence, he himself has done the destroying; in the act of creating he does violence, like Rimbaud, both to the outside world and to his own art. In his “Scorched Earth” series (begun in 1974), for example, Kiefer frames the charred landscapes with a lens-like painter’s palette; in one, Nero Paints, the paint brushes are actually setting fire to the village at the horizon.59 In a 1982 painting whose composition eerily echoes that of Nero Paints, Wayland’s Song (With Wing), Kiefer alludes to the myth that could serve as ur-metaphor for both Kiefer’s art and the aesthetic of violence itself:
Wayland [a blacksmith] was captured by men serving a wicked king, who had gained control over him by robbing him of a magic ring. Subsequently, Wayland’s art was put to the service of the king until the queen, suspicious of the dangerous powers possessed by this worker with fire, convinced the king to imprison Wayland on an island, after severing the tendons of his legs. The song of Wayland relates the tale of how he liberated himself, taking revenge against the king by killing his three sons, burying their bodies under his bellows, and fashioning silver ornaments for the king, into which he worked their skulls. In addition, Wayland presented jewelry to the queen, composed of stones made from the eyes of her sons, and broaches to the princess made from their teeth. Finally, before escaping by wings fashioned for that purpose from lead, Wayland seduced the princess, who became pregnant with his child.60

In later paintings, Kiefer’s technique (which owes as much to German Expressionism as the Situationists’ style owes to Dada) takes the idea
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of the artist/destroyer/(pro)creator still further, in a way that brings his work more completely within the aesthetic of violence. Using lead, ash, sand, fabric, photographs and organic material in addition to paint, now Kiefer destroys the self-containment of the work itself. He also uses text in his work: usually, though not always, the title, painted somewhere prominently on the canvas. These textual superimpositions are most often allusive, whether to myths (Wayland, Parsifal) or theology (Kabbala in particular) or works of literature. If modernist demands for “purity” in art require that “the unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique in the nature of its medium”61 Kiefer’s use of mixed media and collage says that there is nothing pure, there is nothing inviolate or whole unto itself.62 The very concept of “purity,” like that of “utopia,” is utterly suspect. Kiefer is obviously a technically skilled artist (in the classical as well as the postmodern sense); nonetheless, this “rawness” of technique is in a way the same thing as the punk musician’s proud ignorance of his instrument, his off-key wailing, the near-unlistenable covers of rock’s golden oldies and the haphazard production of the recordings constantly pointing out the man behind the curtain. In a 1977 recording of “Forming,” Germs singer Darby Crash finishes out the song by ranting, “Anyone, anytime, anyhow…Whoever’s buying this shit…Fucking jerk, he’s playing it all wrong; the drums are too slow, the base is too fast, the chords are all wrong…” It’s true, of course (in a genre filled with unskilled musicians, the Germs make the Sex Pistols look like Mozart), but it’s also a pose. In a similar way, “Rather than demonstrating any virtuoso skill, [Kiefer’s] pictures openly exhibit the processes of their manufacture and the presence of their maker…. As it creates the impression of often makeshift handiwork this (feigned) ‘honesty’ and (intentional) ‘maladroitness’ replace the traditional illusionary skills of academic painting with the physically felt impact of a material presence.”63 The destruction of the mimetic illusion is decisive to the aesthetic of violence. Seductive as it is, Kiefer’s art does not permit a spectator to enjoy the complacency of realism. It is—strange as it may seem for an
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artist of such gravitas—ironic. Not merely do his paintings subvert the “scientific consistency” (c.f. Greenberg) of their genre; they also announce themselves as performances: every bit as much as the Sex Pistols were riot as ritual and music as inside joke, Kiefer’s work is painting as theatre. His canvases are not so much representations (classicism) or objects in themselves (modernism), but “theatrical setting[s] for elemental forces,”64 vast proscenia in which the various myths, fantasies, and juxtapositions Kiefer evokes play themselves out in front of the viewer. An early painting, Parsifal II, conceives the Parsifal myth as an attic room with wooden beams and, deep towards the back wall, a bowl of blood (but how are we sure that it’s blood?: ceci n’est pas du sang) on a table. Above the bowl is written “Höchsten Heilest Wunder! Erlösing dem Erlöser! (“Miracle of the highest salvation! Redemption to the Redeemer!”). The ambiguous, not to say sardonic, treatment of the myth, the silent indeterminacy of the setting (Are we, the spectators, supposed to be the redeemer? Who do the words address? Do they “address” anyone? What will happen?) create rather than merely represent a drama “in which that which is happening requires a response which stimulates ongoing interpretation.”65 Ironic tragedy, then: one possible description of the aesthetic of violence Punk rock, mixed media, glorification in blood and guts,66 popular sado-masochism may not be new impulses, but it seems safe to say that from the late sixties to the early eighties these things come into their moment. “Tragedy gains its force from its power to confront, to challenge, and to undermine forms of established ‘civilized’ value, where hidden agendas and unexpected outcomes distort their intended purposes.”67 In ancient tragedy, this is usually a case of the presumptive rationalist coming up against darker forces (as in The Bacchae), or rationalism itself turned against its advocate (as in Oedipus Rex or Antigone). It is all too easy to see similarities between this and the postmodern era, in which society’s whole rational project proves to be at once its glory and its ruin. But today also forbids any easy distinction between the rational
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and the irrational, the sane and the mad, truth and its fabrication. Thus we are now compelled to “set up the laws, and at the same time oppose them.”68 True as this may be, it is also the perfect formula for a selfdefeating philosophy—for a philosophy of self-destruction. It would be possible to read the masochistic tendencies of postmodernism as an act of collective penance for the evil mankind hath wrought in its own name, doomsday pronouncements on “the end of history,” “the end of art,” “the end of irony” (!) not accurate pronouncements so much as self-flagellation and death-wish. Society is so radically sick that it must burn itself on the pyre, cast itself into hell, exile itself into the wilderness with its sins written—punk style—on its hide. In this light, “No future” has an altogether different ring. THE (SID) VICIOUS CIRCLE
John Doe: Maybe punk’s big contribution to mass culture, the national consciousness, was fucked-up hair…like hippie’s long hair. Exene Cervenka: Hair for both: all that’s left—our legacy to future generations—is hairdos. That’s all they keep. —”The Way We Weren’t: A Conversation with Exene Cervenka and John Doe [of X]”69 (1999)

Girard speaks of the scapegoat as “at once poison and remedy”70; in view of the return of conservative politics and general materialistic optimism—an even bigger, even more spectacular spectacle—of the eighties, it seems that the aesthetic of violence fulfilled its function all too well, in a way that neither its proponents nor its detractors predicted. In many ways, the explosions of violence in the 1970’s have “served to bring back to life, and to illuminate all the more glaringly, exactly those structures… which they were meant to dissolve.”71 Habermas is talking specifically about art movements, but it is nonetheless true that even a movement as ostensibly comprehensive as punk eventually found itself done in by its own principles. The last page of Forming, headed “Comrades lost in
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battle, R.I.P.,” is the literal sign of punk’s demise. At the other end of the spectrum, “Dottie Danger,” formerly of the Germs, changed her name back to Belinda Carlisle, sang for the Go-Gos, and in the mid-eighties secured a solo career with the hit song “Heaven is a Place on Earth.” And soon enough, not just punk, but violence itself becomes reincorporated into the society that it had set itself against. Early punk is now just as much of a museum piece as Duchamp’s urinals, to be studied in university courses and dissected in scholarly tomes. A performance artist shooting himself on stage seems like just one more trendy gimmick. Happy and unhappy suburban kids get their septums pierced (with their parents’ permission, of course) and pay thirty dollars for the privilege of throwing themselves in a mosh pit. Revolution becomes fashion. It is not surprising that a movement so explicitly self-destructive as punk would eventually crash and burn in its own flames. “Selling out” is the cliché of all counterculture movements, but it also fits strangely well with the cathartic function of tragedy: through the scapegoat, or through the art work as scapegoat, the violence of a society is concentrated, experienced, and expelled. Even the degree to which a society assimilates this violence is therapeutic, in the sense of a vaccine: ingesting small occasional doses to protect against a full-blown outbreak. And even if the conditions that gave rise to the aesthetics of violence have not gone away, the sense of newness and urgency that accompanied them have.72 ANGER IS AN ENERGY
Off the pigs / Darby lives! —Dub Narcotic Disco Plate, “FSU” (1995)


t il l , viol enc e a s a for c e in soc iet y and in culture is not, as we have seen, so easily diffused. Whatever power 1970’s-style punk had as a social movement may be gone, but its legacy remains in a thousand contemporary small underground scenes.73 Anselm Kiefer
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remains a more potent artist than ever, not to even mention the many other examples of art and culture one could cite in this context. And as long as postindustrial society continues to effect “the disappearance of a sense of history,” to embody “a perpetual present and…perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social formations have had in one way or another to preserve,”74 a response, of one kind or another, will be required. Lyotard defines a postmodern aesthetic of the sublime as “that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.”75 What, then, constitutes the aesthetic of violence? It is the postmodern sublime, expressed in rage. In so doing, it provides a partial answer to the question Jameson poses at the end of his essay, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” of whether postmodernism resists “the logic of consumer capitalism” as well as it “replicates or reproduces—reinforces” it.76 The aesthetic of violence does both, of course—though with a paradoxicality, a both/and quality that is, after all, wholly appropriate. It is no coincidence that Lyotard ends his The Postmodern Condition with a declaration of war; nor is it a coincidence that the most wellknown of all “postmodern” theories is called Deconstructionism. For whatever postmodernism is, it has the aesthetic of violence as one of its guiding principles. It lashes out; it attacks itself; it makes itself at once sacrificer and sacrificed. Whether or not this is an effective response to the problems and issues of late capitalism still remains to be seen. But— considering the era that created it—it is, at least, a fitting one. r NOTES
1 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-

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Smith, (New York: Zone Books, 1994), 144. 2 Savage, England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 230. 3 Didion, The White Album (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 14. 4 Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr, eds., Violence in America: Historical and Comparative Perspectives: A Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, Vol. II (Wash ington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969), vii. 5 Debord, 12. 6 Lyle, “Contemporary Functions of the Mass Media,” in Mass Media and Violence: A Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. Vol. XI, Robert K. Baker and Dr. Sandra J. Ball, eds., (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969), 188. 7 Greil Marcus, Essay in Gang of Four: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century (Warner Brothers Records, 1990), 43-44. My italics. 8 Debord, 38-39. 9 Marcus, liner notes for Gang of Four: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, 7. 10 Didion, 13. 11 Robert Lewis Shayon, quoted in Catton, “The Worldview Presented by Mass Media,” in Mass Media and Violence, 477. 12 Catton, 478-9. 13 Didion, 44. 14 Graham and Gurr, 623-4. 15 Savage, England’s Dreaming, 77. 16 Savage, England’s Dreaming, 109. 17 Nuttall, Bomb Culture (New York: Delacorte Press, 1968), 181. 18 (and—what will underlie my discussion of Anselm Kiefer—after Auschwitz) 19 Nuttall, 41. 20 Jean Baudrillard, Amérique (Paris: Grasset, 1986), 86: “…non plus seulement l’indulgence, mais la violence autopublicitaire, autojus tificatrice…cette violence triomphaliste qui fait partie des révolutions réussies.” 21 Lange, Baker, and Ball, Mass Media and Violence. 22 Lange, Baker, and Ball, Chapter 16, “The Actual World of Violence,” 341-362. 23 J. Milton Yinger, Countercultures: The Promise and the Peril of a

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World Turned Upside Down (New York: The Free Press, 1982), 148. 24 Nuttall, 117. 25 Savage, 9. 26 John Roeker and Sherri Schotlaender, “Timeline,” in Forming: The Days of Early L.A. Punk, 47. 27 Compare, in light of this, John Lydon’s own (professed) views on sex: “By the time you’re twenty you just think—yawn—just another squelch session.” Quoted in Savage, 189. 28 Nuttall, 214. 29 Didion, 30. Note too, as a measure of Newton’s auto-dehumaniza tion and subordination despite all rhetoric to corporate America, that in the following section he is revealed as “a Kaiser…he belonged to Kaiser” (i.e., the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan). 30 Didion, 38. 31 Didion, 27-8. Despite certain similarities between this and examples of the aesthetic of violence, I think this sloganeering is fundamentally different, mostly because it still takes itself seriously, and treats vio lence not as its proper medium, but as an expedient method to achieve certain aims. Between “By any means necessary,” and “Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it” is a world of difference. 32 Didion, 23-4. 33 Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 51. 34 Catton, 485. 35 Savage, 110. 36 Marcus, A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, 7. 37 Nuttall, 72. 38 Nuttall, 66. 39 And all the more ideal as so many Disney movies are based on Grimms’ fairy tales, the leitmotif of which is precisely violence’s sinister ubiquity. 40 Baudrillard, 117: “Ce pays est sans espoir. Les ordures mêmes y sont propres, le trafic lubrifié, la circulation pacifiée…font rêver l’Européen de mort et de meurtre, de motels pour suicidaires, orgy and cannibalism, pour faire échec à cette perfection de l’océan, de la lumière, à cette facilité insensée de la vie, à l’hyperréalité de toutes choses.” 41 René Girard, La Violence et le sacré (Paris: Hachette/Pluriel, 1972), 480: “La ten dence à effacer le sacré, à l’éliminer entièrement, prépare le retour subreptice du

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42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49

50 51 52 53 54 55

56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64

sacré, sous une forme non pas trancendente mais immanente, sous la forme de la violence et du savoir de la violence.” Girard, 188: “la tragédie derrière l’insipidité de la fête transformée en vacances à perpétuité, derrière les promesses platement utopiques d’un « univers de loisirs ».” Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Hal Foster, ed. (New York: The New Press, 1998), 113. Savage, 188. Debord, 135. Jameson, 112. McKenna, “Remembrance of Things Fast,” in Forming, 31. Jameson, 114. This chronology is the subject of active debate: many adhere to the opposite view, in which Illuminations is the triumphant finale after the torturing doubt of A Sea son in Hell. This view, to me, seems wishful thinking: “Merde pour la poésie” is not the statement of a satisfied artist. Rimbaud, “The Impossible,” from A Season in Hell.: “Nous mangeons la fièvre avec nos légumes aqueux. Et l’ivrognerie! et le tabac! et l’ignorance! et les dévouements!” Marcus, Lipstick Traces, 36. No pun intended: although punk certainly was—and is—an insular youth colony. Marcus, 84. Debord, 135. Girard, 179: “L’observateur modern y voit surtout la transgression des interdits. La promiscuité sexuelle est tolérée, parfois requise…un effacement général des dif férences: les hierarchies familiales et sociales sont temporairement supprimées ou inverties…le mélange de couleurs discordantes…le recours au travesty…les assem blages contre nature, les rencontres les plus imprévues.” Marcus, 67. Savage, 193. Girard, 403: “La victime émissaire a donc un caractère monstreux; on a cessé de voir en elle ce qu’on voit dans les autres membres de la communauté.” Daniel Arasse, Anselm Kiefer (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001), 99-100. Gilmour, Fire on the Earth: Anselm Kiefer and the Postmodern World (Philadel phia: Temple Univerisity Press, 1990), 125. Greenberg, Collected Essays and Criticism, 86. Gilmour, 62. Arasse, 300. Gilmour, 165.

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65 Gilmour, 67. 66 An expanded study on this topic would do well to look at the slasher flick (and its effective death -by-parody in the 1990’s). 67 Gilmour, 70. 68 Gilmour, 143 69 In Forming, 93. 70 Girard, 431. 71 Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity—An Incomplete Project,” in The Anti-Aesthetic, 11. 72 See Nuttall on counterculture art: “The masterpieces had to be immediate and sensational in their nature, had to alter people’s minds physically and immediate ly…an urgent psychological weapon to stop the slaughter” (94). 73 Though a lot of these scenes nowadays take themselves awfully seriously. 74 Jameson, 125. 75 Jean-François Lyotard, “What is Postmodernism?” in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 81. 76 Jameson, 125.

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