[I should mention that this continues from my first post on Harriet, and also that Rauan Klassnik wrote a wonderful response to the post on HTMLGIANT, a post in the “humiliated” language of the “deformtion zne.”]

I realize there might be objections to my interest in the connection between violence and art, in my favoring of fascination, absorption and allure over the kind of critical distance that has been the hallmark of most academic writing about poetry for quite some time (and especially the kind of “experimental poetry” favored in the academy). More importantly, as I mentioned in my first post, there is a wider political context for Savage-Landor’s encounter with “Corean music,” one that suggests the complexity of the relationship between violence and art: Savage-Landor is an imperial European visiting a foreign land in “the Orient,” that site of so much of what we view as Beauty (silk, opium, spices etc), and one like Korea in particular which has so often been colonized and abused. Art is of course involved in this violence too. There’s no use pretending it isn’t.

I’ve noticed that a lot of poets seem hesitant about involving art and violence. If they do engage with violence, poets tend to seek to create a distance from the violence, erecting a hygienic barrier between the art and the violence that often is described as “critique” (or perhaps "Beautiful Soul Syndrome"). Poets often express concern about “aestheticizing” politics. But it’s not a matter of aestheticizing politics; violence is already deeply aesthetic! I’m for example fascinated (and sickened!) by the way aesthetic rhetoric appears in war zones. Think of the name “shock and awe” (a tactic named for its spectacular effect). Or, more pertinently, think of the extremely “aestheticized” Abu Ghraib photographs of tortured Iraqi prisoners, “art” meant to very immediately harm (even kill) and humiliate the non-Americans (thinkers as different as Slavoj Zizek, W.J.T. Mitchell and Rush Limbaugh have all pointed out the similarity to contemporary American artists of the grotesque like Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy). One might say that the guards in Abu Ghraib (and of course the people in charge of them) used "American music" to violently attack foreign bodies.

Humiliation was a key component of the Abu Ghraib photographs: The prisoners were posed in homosexual situations, or emasculating scenes (involving women, dogs, electricity, etc.). Humiliation in this instance is a result of a kind of artistic violence. I recently wrote a post about Wayne Koestenbaum’s memoir Humiliation and the over-the-top virtuosity of Joyelle McSweeney’s play “Contagious Knives” and Lara Glenum’s “smears” in her book Pop Corpse!, both of which invoke various elements of torture. In “Contagious Knives” Louis Braille--his eyes poked out by an auger--wants to save Bradley Manning. It’s important in both these cases that artifice is not something that protects against humiliation--as in a more traditional notion where artifice hides or distances, something that you have to move through to “access” the true core of the art work--but enacts the humiliation.

Koestenbaum is really onto something when he argues that the great artist Jean Michel Basquiat worked through humiliation--of himself, of language, of the medium of painting. Koestenbaum argues that Basquiat “humiliates language” by constantly crossing it out. But the canvases, so beautifully stretched out on rough frames and splotched and smeared like skin, humiliate the human body as well: the artworks (particularly the early ones) often portray martyrs that look not so different from the iconic “hooded man” and other images from Abu Ghraib. He often disassembles these human bodies into words (canvases covered with the names of body parts for example) and isolated Gray’s-anatomy-copied body parts, as if the artwork was an act of violence against the human body, a “shattering” event.

I’m of course not arguing that Basquiat’s art is the same as Abu Ghraib. I do think it’s interesting to see them as related, as participating--from different directions--in a gothic artistic discourse of the body, humiliation, violence and art. But it is important to note that Abu Ghraib meant to inflict humiliation and violence on powerless prisoners, while Basquiat’s art in many ways stages the humiliation of racist violence, and seeks to magically undo it (and hundreds of years of it going back to the Renaissance, whose beautiful religious portraits Basquiat’s art also invokes), in the words of one of Basquiat's most famous sculpture/paintings, to “repel ghosts.”

The key for me is that Basquiat’s art does not “critique” or distance us from the violence: It fascinates us, draws us in, absorbs us in a zone of violence and artifice, humiliation and wounds.


Another interesting case to consider in this context is Nancy Spero’s art, in particular “Torture of Women," an art exhibit from 1972 that Siglio Press recently published as a book [an image from which is above]. The show consisted of scrolls covering the walls with mythical images and accounts of torture:

". . .they soon succeeded in penetrating my sexual organ with the truncheon with the electric wire on it and passed current....I was bleeding a dark thick blood. Sometime late they brought in Nuri Colakogly who was in the same building as myself to put more pressure on me. They wanted to show me state they had put him in. I saw that the nails of his right hand were covered with pus. I realized they had burned him with cigarette butts..."

These accounts are horrifying, but also deeply artistic. (But does the torture victim “earn the image” of “dark thick blood”? Is it too obscene, grotesque? Does it deserve to be workshopped?) Sometimes Spero’s work is treated as “witness” art, and it may work in that dimension, but this strikes me as a way out of considering the truly dark implications of this work, a work that suggests an affinity between aesthetics and violence. Like with Basquiat, Spero’s art strikes me as immersive and atmospheric: there is no safe place to stand outside of the torture.

Rather, we are brought into what McSweeney--discussing my own book A New Quarantine Will Take My Place and Roberto Bolano’s short story “William Burns”--has called “ambient violence”:

“As in the villified Bolaño story, William Burns, violence runs all around the house and then it enters the house. But at the precise point in which that story is saturated with violence, and the windows in the house start breaking apart with it as in some horror flick,  the supersaturation causes the material of violence to attach at random to various surfaces. Specifically, the apparent agent of violence becomes its victim. The victim-characters become murderous and throw the violence back.  They who had been the target-receptacles of violence become mediums of violence (the media of violence). The body, the house, the girlfriend, the other girlfriend, the dogs, the narrator, the bodypolitic keeps twitching and switching sides within violence’s tidal, vital erratic currents.”

McSweeney wrote the post partly in response to Matt Soucy’s review of my book in Coldfront, in which he criticized my book for being misogynist and “coercive.” Ie it did not give him a clean place to stand, it interfered with his sense of agency. I think something similar happens in Spero’s art: Art is violence and violence is art. We’re in the middle of it.

Spero’s show doesn’t just include “real” accounts of torture, it also includes a quote from Artaud’s poetry, suggesting the kind of connection between art and violence I made in this and my last post. (And the work previous to “Torture of Women” was indeed “Artaud Codex,” based on Artaud’s writing.) For Artaud, the violence of this poems were not “fictional,” but something much closer to how in The Parapornographic Manifesto Carl-Michael Edenborg describes Andrea Dworkin’s work: She views violence against women in Marquis de Sade’s book as real violence (though as Edenborg notes, she does not include any discussion of the male victims in de Sade’s writing):

“Dworkin’s epochal book Pornography: Men Possessing Women was published in 1979. It devotes a chapter to the Marquis de Sade. Dworkin tells how she spent months of her life reading the 18th century libertine’s texts and details the shocking effect of this experience. She represents herself as a martyr who voluntarily exposes herself to pornographic violence in order to help free women from it.”

This synopsis gets at the ambient poetics of this project: She “exposes” herself to the violence of de Sade; she lives in the space overtaken by his art. The result is--as with Basquiat--a kind of martyrdom.


The final case I’d like to consider in this context of “ambient violence” is the Chilean poet Raul Zurita, whose authorship begins with him burning his own face in an act of making art out of the violence that was directed to himself and others like him (students, poets, leftists) during August Pinochet’s (U.S.-backed) coup of 1973. Soldiers incarcerated Zurita in a shed, so Zurita turned the other cheek. Ie he directed the violence against his own face. In keeping with Spero’s work, the torture turns Zurita into a “woman,” as the epigraph reads: “My friends think I’m a sick woman because I burned my cheek.” And in “Sunday Morning,” he turns into a female saint:

They’ve shaved my head

They’ve dressed me in these gray wool rags

- Mom keeps on smoking

I am Joan of Arc

They catalog me on microfilm

The key for me in reading “Sunday Morning” (and in some sense most of Zurita’s work) is the way in which an atmosphere of violence, an “ambient violence” permeates everything, turning everybody into torture victim of sorts. He does not need to name Pinochet: Pinochet is already (through Zurita burning his own face in an act of performance art) in the artistic atmosphere. This becomes for me an aesthetic not of witness, but of art as violence, as resistance, as explosion, as amplification, as rejection. The violence of  “women,” a drag show politics, the politics of saints.

Or as Edenborg writes about Dworkin:

“This violent view of sexuality, perception and imagination which Dworkin later developed even stronger in her book Intercourse, has a deep consonance with the Marquis de Sade’s notion of love, in which violence, pain and humiliation are intertwined in an intimate way and in which, strictly speaking, it is power it itself that is the real reality.”


In my most recent book Haute Surveillance I wanted to investigate these issues of humiliation, violence, ambience, interiority, sexuality and power. One of the main lines of the “plot” is that the narrator is charged with teaching proper poetry to soldiers returning from a foreign war; in essence teaching them how to “feel” with the proper interiority, turning the war into a private, personal matter of grieving. But the violence of these soldiers is too powerful, it cannot be channeled into the proper poetic forms, forms of interiority and “private experience,” instead breaking out into kitschy and obscene forms of expression, not from an interiority but from bodies possessed by violence. They exist somehow outside of time, in a separate world where they act out the violence of war and the obscene underbelly of our culture:

"The Soldiers are dragging around left-over equipment from the TV crews. They want to make movies, become famous, and they think I can help them make it big. The soldier nicknamed “The Poet” wants to make a movie feathering “rubber gloves and mirrors, wires and hoods”; he thinks it will be about Beauty. A couple of soldiers want to make a movie about child abuse and wonder if they can use some of my daughters. A sharpshooter wants to make a movie about assassinations and wants me to play the role of “Viktim.” One soldier who can’t speak (his mouth is stuffed with pork) gestures wildly and puts his hands behind his head as if to imitate a diseased deer and when I don’t understand him he starts to bang his head against the wall. Some other soldiers have to restrain him and wipe his face clean. He wants to make a movie about you, they explain, somewhat apologetically. The expresident shouts that they better clean the blood off the wall. Nobody is listening. By now most of us are watching the soldiers performing a war in the empty swimming pool.


This is the first lesson in haute surveillance: Always write like you’re a teenage virgin.

"Always reach for the gun."

Originally Published: August 5th, 2013

Poet and translator Johannes Göransson emigrated with his family from Skåne, Sweden to the United States at age 13. He earned a BA from the University of Minnesota, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his PhD from the University of Georgia. He is the author of several books,...