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Imagining violence

Andrew Benjamin
septembre 2011

DOI : https://dx.doi.org/10.56698/filigrane.527


Texte intégral   


1Violence draws the eye in. Violent images abound: exerting a hold, holding the eye. They compel. To be held by violence, held by a proliferation of violent images to which the eye continues to turn by turning and returning within the impossibility of turning away, is to be fascinated. Indeed, the founding truth of the violent image is located in its capacity to exert a hold in this way, becoming therefore an instance of what will be described as the image-that-fascinates1. (This conception of the image creates the setting in which the question of the image cannot escape forms of engagement in relation to its content; nor, equally, can its link to the imagination, understood as the source of its initial production, be left out of consideration.) Fascination allows for the violent image precisely because fascination is defined by the interplay of distancing and opening in which affect defers the hold of judgment. If the eyes were to close and the gaze to be diverted, then the cause, in both instances, would be found in the necessity of the move from fascination to knowledge—a move that may have been prompted affectively. Though, with this move, the eyes reopen as the change in the quality of what is “now” to be seen would have demanded another response. The image-that-fascinates would have become too real and thus would no longer be fascinating. It would have begun to take on another quality. The known would have overwhelmed the space that fascination had held open. If there is a way of characterizing the state in which an initial opening is overwhelmed, then it concerns the projected simultaneity of knowledge and experience. What would then count as the object of experience would be either the known or that which demanded to be known. The intrusion of the known as either an insistent reality or as a demand cannot be equated with the reality of violence, as though that reality were no more than the simple positing of the real. Rather, the known—either as a form of presence or as a demand—would be the real defined as the actual or projected co-presence of knowledge and experience. In both instances there would be a form of simultaneity in which decisions became necessary. A setting would have been created in which there is an inevitable demand for action. However, there are other versions of the real; knowledge does not exhaust the real. To be fascinated is to encounter a specific reality. However, that reality involves a refusal of the simultaneity of knowledge and experience that conditions the conception of the real that is contemporaneous with knowledge. The image-that-fascinates alludes to this possibility, and thus to a relation to knowledge, without being defined by it. The image-that-fascinates always holds to knowledge and judgment by holding them to one side and therefore by deferring actions whose point of origination would have been external to the fascinating image. The holding apart is integral to the definition of fascination and at the same time underscores fascination’s tenuous hold on the image.


2 The image-that-fascinates is essentially amoral insofar as it resists judgment (while inviting subsequent judgments). The status of such images within the sphere of morality would therefore involve a form of retroactive reworking. While its status would be a product of the image having been reworked, the relationship between morality, judgment and the image-that-fascinates still requires clarification. However, to the extent that resisting judgment, present as judgment having been deferred, can be maintained, then the violent image—the image-that-fascinates—acquires a problematic status. The problem is defined by the relation that this image has to moral concerns (where the latter necessitate the activity of judgment). The image-that-fascinates is positioned such that the ground of judgment is necessarily not at hand (in a sense, fascination depends upon its absence). The object of experience, namely the image-that-fascinates, which here is the violent image, is defined by the lack of actual or projected simultaneity. The reality of that experience, no matter how much the subject is absorbed into it—an absorption marked by the vanishing of distraction—works within the distancing of judgment’s actual possibility. However, this lack is not to be understood as a type of deprivation. On the contrary, fascination depends on the opening that inheres in the violent image and provides it, thereby, with its capacity to hold the eye. Responding to the question of what counts as a violent image is more demanding than it may have initially seemed. The registration of violence takes on the quality of an image insofar as responding to it does not demand the move away from fascination and towards knowledge and allows thereby for the range of responses to which fascination gives rise. Once fascination cedes its place to knowledge, then not only does the status of the object change, but the actions it demands also undergo a concomitant change. Demands for action are central to understanding the nature of the distinction, albeit a distinction that is also a form of relation: between fascination, as a mode of experience in the first instance, and knowledge, in the second. Knowledge is of course that which is demanded by experience. The demand for action necessitates a repositioning both in the way experience occurs, as well as in the registration of experience. Here, there is an important move on the level of affect. That there is not an absolute disjunction or distinction between fascination and knowledge, a distinction of the form envisaged by Descartes in his attempt distinguish between “imaginationem” and “puram intellectionem”, is of fundamental importance2. That distinction in Descartes is one in which the imagination not only reaches a limit that is established by knowledge, but in which the nature of the distinction reinforces a divide between sensibility and intellection that then traverses further attempts to think the particularity of the imagination and, by extension, of the image. Fascination brings a different state of affairs into play. Divisions, which were once thought to be absolute, are now marked by moments of overlap, if not also by a more general, but nonetheless pervasive, sense of porosity.


3The opening that is maintained by the image-that-fascinates exerts a particular challenge to philosophical accounts of aesthetic experience. It is not as though fascination is completely indifferent. Nor is it the case that fascination is simply immediate. Fascination draws upon the known, alludes to it, perhaps even draws it in—if only to then resist the hold of knowledge. Such resistance would be active, almost willed, in order to prolong the pleasure of fascination. Indeed, it is possible to suggest that fascination demands the introduction of knowledge, though without the intrusion of the demands that knowledge makes. It would be an allusion rather than an intrusion. If there were a way to describe the opening in which fascination continues to operate, then it would need to be apportioned qualities that could be defined in both negative and positive terms. Yet, any definition would itself be marked by a loosening of borders. Rather than separation thought as negation, there is separation present as the distancing allowed by the continual interplay of allusion and elusion. If there is an already existent philosophical correlate to this interplay of allusion and elusion, it can be found in Kant’s description of the subject’s affective response to the “beautiful”. For Kant, the subject “lingers” (verweilen) in response to the beautiful. Hence he writes: “We linger in our contemplation of the beautiful, because this contemplation reinforces and reproduces itself”3. Lingering has an economy that allows for its own self-perpetuation. Lingering, both in the Kantian sense and also beyond it, differentiates itself from “boredom” (Langeweile) insofar as the latter generates forms of action delimited by the possibility, if not the envisaged necessity, of boredom ceasing4. To be caught within boredom is to be caught within that which “one” seeks to overcome or to not have repeated. Boredom is the ground for affective discontinuity. There is the desire to no longer feel bored; hence boredom’s potentiality. Lingering, on the other hand, is linked to a form of continuity. There is a sense in which lingering and fascination have a similar temporal structure. Both involve a temporality where an end is neither automatically nor internally present. The limit of Kant’s formulation is that lingering is an immediate response; thus in order to envisage its continuity, let alone to will it, a form of mediation would be necessary. Nonetheless, what endures as the legacy of Kant’s position is the identification of an affective response that is timed and where the conception of temporality that it articulates involves an economy of self-realized perpetuation. Thus there is a version of the will at work within the very structure of lingering, which exists also, by extension, within fascination. The will, or at least this version of the will, becomes the inter-articulation of a form of prolonging—Kant’s “lingering”—with the suspension of knowledge as determinate. That set up holds at bay the possible intrusion of knowledge as exercising a determining presence, while nonetheless allowing for knowledge’s recall. The combination of distancing and recall begins to provide a more exact determination of the image-that-fascinates and therefore the work of the imagination.


4Precisely because fascination demands a form of “lingering”—and with it the presence of both temporal continuity and self-perpetuation—what emerges from this setting, as a genuine question, is the possibility of fascination’s cessation. The question is straightforward: What is involved in bringing fascination to an end and thus in the “subject” no longer being fascinated? The end of fascination is its continuity. Thus ending fascination involves an interruption that occurs in the name of that which no longer fascinates. Closure, which will take on the form of judgment, involves an act. This will be case even within a projected simultaneity between knowledge and experience insofar as knowledge informs the nature of experience and therefore this sense of experience still continues to be defined by knowledge claims. The interplay between knowledge and experience (thus construed), on the one hand, and judgment (understood as an act), on the other, yields a setting in which decisions are made. While it involves a more or less tautological formulation it should be noted that the decision is an act that announces that the concerns of judgment have been brought into play. The interplay of decision, act and judgment needs to be contrasted to the setting in which judgments are deferred and decisions not made, namely the setting in which “one” remains fascinated by having been held by the image-that-fascinates. Yet taking this contrast into consideration does not result in a position wherein decisions are either absolute or singular. There are always different decisions and thus different modes of action. However, the actions in question occur, and thus bring with them, a necessary link between action and responsibility. This is a connection that is inscribed in the very structure of the decision. The decision does not have the status of either a proposition or a mere description. Decisions enjoin responsibility (this link or connection is therefore formal. It establishes the formal relation in which differing actions would then take place. There can be no one action that then defines the relationship between decision and responsibility). This has important consequences since what has been described as the simultaneity of knowledge and experience does not construct a form of absolute singularity. The nature of the decision is such that it is singular and yet that singularity will always be positioned within an automatic relation to other modes of singularity. These singularities would be other and therefore different decisions arising from the same event, where the event is defined in terms of the co-presence of knowledge and experience. Singularity in this context defines a relationship between any one particular decision and an ensuing action. Singularities exist in relation to an event. The specificity of the decision is itself defined in terms of the actions that any one decision demands. All actions arise from, while constituting, the same event. Hence, as fascination moves to knowledge, not only do decisions come to be imposed, thereby closing the space that fascination holds open—a set up in which each decision is singular and to that extent the site of responsibility—but it is also the case that the presence of knowledge, itself there as the ineliminable demand to know, is linked to that confluence of knowledge and experience in which the demand to know cannot be separated from the demand to act. The interplay of these demands is constituted by and, reciprocally, constitutive of an event. While sustaining singularities in the sense that the term is used above, the event itself is not singular. Sameness does not indicate the presence of a self-identical singularity5.


5Images are produced. Once it can be claimed that images are the work of the imagination then Kant is right to argue that the imagination is inherently productive. Indeed, the German word for “the imagination”—Die Einbildungskraft—has inscribed within it the word for “power” (kraft); the imagination would then need to be understood as the power to produce images. The imagination creates. For Kant, the imagination creates from that which is given to it. Creation does not occur ex nihilo. The power of the imagination, the imagination as a form of power, is therefore a type of work. The imagination works by reworking the given. The language of the gift is Kant’s. He writes that the “imagination is very powerful (mächtig) when it creates another nature from the stuff (einer anderen Natureaus dem Stoffe) that actual (nature) gives (gibt) to it”6. And, as will be noted, the relationship between power as the operative principle within the imagination and the question of the gift is of fundamental importance here. The gift is brought into relation with the possibility of otherness. Kant describes what is produced by the imagination in terms of “another nature”. While what is intended is the transformation of “nature” into this “other nature”, in this context it is the otherness—the quality of that which is produced or imagined being-as-other—that is decisive. Fundamental to this mode of production in the realm of “fine art” (schöne Kunst) is that creation, and thus the conception of otherness that is attached to it, for Kant, has to be understood as the refusal of imitation. In other words, there cannot be an account of production, what amounts to the work of the power to make images, which takes place in terms of the imitative. Were such an account to have occurred and the content of the image known in advance, known and thus de facto determining, then nature would have appeared—or reappeared—as itself. Otherness here is that which takes place within the cessation of willed imitation. Otherness demands therefore an opening. As has already been suggested, the otherness of the image, while alluding to knowledge, defers its hold. Hence the question of the specificity of the imagination. Kant’s initial description provides a way ahead. Within that setting it can therefore be conjectured that if there were to be a more general description of the imagination, then it would stem from the precise point noted above—a point defined by a conception of the work being-as-other: namely, one that recalls the given in a way that is not determined by the given. Hence the imagination as a mode of production necessitates an opening. This opening locates, while being located by, the image-that-fascinates. In addition, and with sense of reciprocity similar to the one just noted, the opening accounts for the production of that image; though it is equally the image-that-fascinates that sustains this opening. What this brings back into play is the question of the relationship between this image and violence; a question that has already been posed in terms of what brings to an end the opening that the image-that-fascinates maintains. Within the framework developed thus far, violence will stand outside the structure of the image, and thus not be a production of the imagination, because violence has the status of an event. The question to be addressed, therefore, concerns the relationship between the imagination and violence, a relationship that is necessarily distinct from that which is named by the heading “imagining violence”.


6What has to be pursued is the position that the imagination, which will always be understood as the work of the imagination, cannot involve violence so long as violence is understood as a means/ends relation that is always delimited by a conception of knowledge in which knowledge is itself already determined by an envisaged end. The latter is the conclusion that can be drawn because, as has been noted, the image-that-fascinates precludes by holding to one side both questions of knowledge and also the possibility that the experienced object, that which fascinates, could become, in virtue of its being fascinating, an object of knowledge. The fascinated eye is held by what it sees. It does not know it. It continues to see, continuing to be drawn in by a set up whose continuity is there in its being prolonged. The eye therefore does not settle on an event. Equally, of course, an event is not constituted. Violence, once projected beyond its equation with an image, takes the form of an event. The event is characterized by the following three elements. The first is that the event makes a claim upon knowledge. The second is that the event is experienced as such. Thirdly, the response to the event takes the form of a decision. Decisions are not relative. Nonetheless, no one event will give rise either to the same precise response or elicit a single decision from all of those who experience it as an event. The impossibility of the event as singularity allows for a return to the question of the relationship between violence and the imagination, recognizing that the latter is the locus of production. Violence, as an event, is not present as an image-that-fascinates. (Reworking that sense of image in terms of its being the presentation of violence, understood as an event, necessitates, as will agued below, the move from fascination to judgment.) Fascination conceived as a maintained opening is the paradigm for any understanding of the imagination. Correspondingly, works of the imagination, and, moreover, the imagination as a site of work, cannot be defined by the concerns of knowledge. To the extent that the Kantian model is adopted, what the imagination produces cannot be determined in advance. In The Origins of German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin wrote that the “function of the tyrant is the restoration of order in the state of emergency : a dictatorship whose utopian goal will always be to replace the unpredictability of historical accidents with the iron constitution of the laws of nature”7. While his concern was not the imagination per se, it is nonetheless possible to see that Walter Benjamin alludes to the force of the imagination in his comment on the relationship between tyranny and utopianism. What comes into play here is the disjunctive relation between what might be described, on the one hand, as form of indetermination (and thus the necessity to hold to the always-to-be-determined), and, on the other, what is determined in advance. While violence can be imagined, acts of violence cannot be works of the imagination. This is precisely because they reiterate the utopian aspirations of the “tyrant” by attempting to actualize singularity. Enacting imagined violence involves modes of calculation, what would amount to attempts to rehearse the “laws of nature” and as such would no longer be the work of the imagination. The opening held in place by fascination would have been undone. What delimits the imagination, while constructing its limit, is the necessity that it be held apart from forms of actualization demanding the decision. The imagination calls therefore upon judgement for the precise reason that the decision to be made in relation to the work of the imagination is not an integral part of the imagination itself. There is therefore a fundamental sense of externality at work here.


7Understanding the force of the image-that-fascinates and its link to judgment necessitates recalling Kant’s use of the term “given” and the role of the already given in providing the work of the imagination with the possibility of otherness ; its being-as-other. Now, while it is true that the image-that-fascinates is the image that defers judgment whilst soliciting it, it must be noted that it is precisely because of that solicitation that the possibility of judgment can never be obviated absolutely. The image cannot preclude its having a capacity to be judged. That capacity is intrinsic to the ontological status of the image. What then is the judgment of the image-that-fascinates ? To the extent that the eye is fascinated, judgment is deferred. At the moment knowledge begins to offer hints, fascination begins to dissipate, and the possibility of judgment begins to take hold. Judgment is not an accidental quality of the work of the imagination. Intrinsic to what allows for judgment is the given. For Kant the gift was from “nature”. While the details of Kant’s position are important, what is central here is the recognition that production and work, remembering that the imagination is a locus of activity, are themselves forms of reworking. Reworking brings with it threads of the already known ; they are given. The weave created by working and reworking creates the site that calls for judgment. What has been created is a weave that cannot be incorporated within any logic of imitation because reworking is not a formulaic repetition since reworking brings difference rather than variety into consideration. The judgment of the image-that-fascinates necessitates interrupting the hold of fascination. Interruption means creating the setting in which there can be the envisaged simultaneity of knowledge and experience. Judgment therefore is an interruption in which what had fascinated takes on the quality of an event. (It should be added that judgment is possible because it is the non-singularity of the event that demands and allows for judgment.) The judgment of the image of violence, perhaps even the image of actual violence, moves from the opening the imagination sustains to the act of judgment itself. The move occurs because the content of the image calls for judgment. Hence what marks out the response to the relationship between the image and actual violence is the nature of the judgment that then takes place.


1  The following paper draws on an earlier attempt to present a philosophical thinking of fascination. See my “Curiosity, Fascination : Time and Speed”, in Sue Golding (ed.), Eight Technologies of Otherness, London, Routledge, 1997.

2  The reference here is to Descartes’ Sixth Meditation. See “Meditatio Sexta” in René Descartes, Oeuvres philosophiques, edited by Ferdinand Alquié, Paris, Éditions Garnier, 1967, Tome II, p. 221.

3  Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, translated by Werner S. Pluhar, Indianapolis, Hackett, 1987, p. 68 (Immanuel Kant Kritik der Urteilskraft, Hamburg, Felix Meiner Verlag, 2001, p. 74).

4  On the more general question of boredom see my, “Boredom and Distraction. The Moods of Modernity”, in Andrew Benjamin (ed.), Walter Benjamin and History, London, Continuum Books, 2005, pp. 156-170. For Kant’s discussion of “boredom” see his Anthropologyfrom a Pragmatic Point of View, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 128–135.

5  For a development of this position see my The Plural Event, London, Routledge, 1993.

6  Immanuel Kant, op. cit., p. 182 / 202.

7  Walter Benjamin, The Origins of German Tragic Drama, New York, Verso, 2003, p. 74


Andrew Benjamin, «Imagining violence», Filigrane. Musique, esthétique, sciences, société. [En ligne], Numéros de la revue, La responsabilité de l'artiste, Réflexions sur éthique et esthétique, mis à  jour le : 17/10/2012, URL : https://revues.mshparisnord.fr:443/filigrane/index.php?id=527.


Quelques mots à propos de :  Andrew Benjamin

Andrew Benjamin est professeur de Critical Theory et Philosophical Aesthetics auprès de l’Université Monash, à Melbourne. Ses publications récentes incluent Of Jews and animals (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), Writing art and architecture (Re:press, 2010) et Place, commonality and judgement. Continental philosophy and the ancient Greeks (Continuum, 2010).