The Life of an Academic Essay

Blogpost, Film education, Uncategorized

I am delighted to announce that Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind has just published my essay, ‘Violence in Extreme Cinema and the Ethics of Spectatorship‘.

This blog will reproduce the first version of that essay, which I wrote originally in 2006, although I have on my computer only a version saved on New Year’s Eve 2007. That is, it has taken roughly six years for the essay to be published.

My point is not to demonstrate how ‘slow’ academic publishing can be. Nor is it quite to say that this version is better than the published version. Much has changed in the interim – and the published version demonstrates more scholarship, a greater amount of thought, and probably a greater maturity in thought – such that, even if I had to excise from it various ideas that might have deepened the take on the ethics of spectatorship that the finally published essay presents, it is still nonetheless the best version of the essay available.

What I want to highlight, though, is how academic publishing can often involve the removal of various ideas because they are a bit more speculative or, specifically, because they involve word play and punning.

There are two ideas from the original essay that are not in the final essay, but both of which I like and so in order to get them across, I reproduce that original essay in full (complete with rows of ‘xxxx’ to indicate where I had forgotten something from the film and wanted to check it – I have not updated this error here).

Here it is:

Monsters Incorporated

In an essay on Dusan Makavejev and Ingmar Bergman, the philosopher Stanley Cavell evokes the notion of revulsion in connection to the cinema. Certain images, Cavell says, are revolting, but the revolting, the disgusting and revoltedness are linked to innocence, for (provided I have not misunderstood him) the fact that we feel revulsion proves that we are free of the poison that the non-innocent can stomach without gagging.

I thought about moments in films that I have found disgusting. Divine eating dogshit at the end of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos came to mind; the initial rape scene in Baise-Moi; the death by fire extinguisher in Irréversible; and, most recently, the sexual violence at the end of Thomas Clay’s The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael. There is an array of reasons for finding these scenes disturbing, although foremost among them is my shock at the actors’ bravery and ability to perform these tasks. Divine actually ate the dogshit. The rapists in Baise-Moi actually were aroused and penetrated the actresses before them. But, I asked myself, did I feel revulsion when witnessing these moments? If, truly, I felt revulsion, then I would, as the word implies, have turned away. But I did not.

Is it the case, therefore, that I am not innocent, for I can stomach what these films show me? Not only can I stomach it, but I go looking for it. I have no fear of ‘extreme’ films (although I am not in a hurry to see any of the above films again); I am curious to watch all manner of the Mondo films that exist, the disturbing contents of which are not staged but real and accidentally or deliberately caught on film. I don’t always like what I see, but I do not flinch. I am not revolted. I am glued to the screen. If I am appalled by anything, it is by my very lack of appal at the images I see.

There is an important distinction to make here. Morally, I may find these images repugnant. I was, for example, greatly chastened by Robert Carmichael, and I am perturbed to think that some people watch Baise-Moi as porn. But regardless of what my conscious mind thinks, my body gazes on, my eyes exercising supreme authority over my brain, whose lack of power is perhaps what scares me most. My eyes may have seen many grim things, but the fact of their looking, ‘despite’ ‘myself’, has also shown me other truths that make me believe myself a bit cleverer.

Cavell says that the performance of ugly and indecent acts is in part a rejection of a disgusting world and, again, if I understand him correctly, that to accept the world in all of its hideousness is a sign of adulthood, of the end of innocence. By accepting these films in their entirety (rather than only partially watching them by turning away during the grim parts), I give consent to them to exist as they are. I am in this sense an ‘adult’ spectator who accepts these films ‘as they are’, even if they are not strictly to my taste. We do, however, but true to form, reach a paradox: if, say, Robert Carmichael is a rejection of the world as it is (and this would seem to suit the continual references to contemporary geopolitics in the film), then it is young and innocent, but it is a young and innocent film that will only be viewed and accepted by those that it is seeking to reject – namely, adults who accept this real world. Those who leave the cinema when watching Robert Carmichael are the film’s fellow innocents who, through their revulsion, reveal themselves as kindred spirits, albeit ones who express this fellowship by putting distance between themselves and the screen, young Adams who turn away from the forbidden fruit whilst we Eves gobble it right down.

By eating this fruit, we attain Enlightenment (with all of its Luciferean undertones), and with wisdom comes independence. The troubling ultra-violence of art porn might well be nourishing for us, even if it also involves the sad understanding that, whether God exists or not, we do not need Him (and He does not want us). (By accepting the world, or Gaia?, we reject God. We become Eves, we get Even, we exit the order of men.)

But if becoming a woman (thank you, Gilles and Félix) is to embrace nature in all of its ugliness, then there might be a further worry, and one that Cavell, in his seemingly boundless wisdom, also identifies: if we are not men, are we still humans? Or are we monsters? Are we acting according to our nature, according to Nature, or have we mutated into something we cannot recognise? Quoting Thoreau, Cavell implies somehow that the monstrous, in particular death, is proof of a surabundance of life, before Stanley caveats that if the monstrous be natural, nature has still spawned some unpretty horrible monsters, like the Marquis de Sade… I suppose the clincher is this: is it pre-human to be an innocent child, or is it post-human to accept reality in an adult fashion, that is to say, unadulterated?

I don’t know the answer to this question, and I’m not sure that anyone can know it, except perhaps by widening our definition of humanity and saying that both are, impossibly, human. That humanity is defined by the non-humanity (and inhumanity) not only without, but also within (inhumanity is in humanity, except normally we like to put a space between it and us). Regardless of these thoughts, however, the idea that we could be monsters is interesting, in particular on account of the performative etymology of monstrosity. To be a monster is, naturally, to put on a show (to de-monstr-ate, to enact a demonstration not against the world but as part of it).

In the enhancedly explicit sex and violence of the art porn film that the above examples, and many others, typify, we see the emergence (at a time of emergency, no doubt) of a monstrous cinema that is hell bent on showing to us everything that there is to be seen, no matter how monstrous it is. Being a monstrous cinema, it is seemingly an inhuman and inhumane cinema, a worldly, mundane cinema that demeans the mental (‘rational’) endeavours of humans, instead foregrounding us as bodies, as mere meat (as Vivian Sobchack might put it), as flesh to be eaten by an anthropophagous camera, and, significantly more significantly, by insatiably hungry cinemagoers.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that obesity rates and the consumption of audiovisual media have risen side by side over the past century. No wonder, too, that the disappearance of the kindness that we thought was inherent in humankind can be found distastefully demonstrated in a film that combines the natural monster of the Marquis de Sade and our willingness, literally, to consume shit. I am, of course, referring to Pasolini’s Salò, which qualifies itself as an innocent art porn film that rejects a fucked up world and which seeks not to be consumed. That I managed to mangiare Salò perhaps means that the film fails in its honourable quest to question the terrible nature of the world (terrifically, the French know that the earth [la terre] is inherently terrible): I ate and digested Salò, when it was asking for its viewers to gag and rush from the auditorium, hand over mouth in search of the Royal Doulton. But if I were to allow vanity to speak (i.e. if I were to be honest), I’d say that I ‘got’ Salò and therefore could eat it, whilst those who have left the cinema instead of watching it are the naïfs that could do with getting down and dirty and seeing how the real world works.

I also dare to say that it is no coincidence that the title character wanks whilst reading a dog-eared copy of de Sade’s book some halfway through The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, a film ‘meal’ that I found very difficult to digest, but the benefits of which I am beginning to understand, and which entitle it, in my mind, to the status of ‘an important film’. For whilst the film is indeed a savage attack on the alienating nature of human society (whereas the moments of peace in the film come when the characters are not in human-constructed matrices but in Nature herself), it is, I think, an important attack on the masculine nature of that society.

This attack goes something like this: man thinks that woman is an unfathomable monster who fuels and is the object of his violent tendencies, whilst the truth is that man is himself the monster and not because of women elsewhere, but because the monster is in the (in)(hu)man already. The film’s puckeringly bitter final quotation from XXXX (“xxxx”) might seem to endeavour to render the movie a profound statement. But it is the quotation’s banality that is most revealing: for all of mancruel’s desire for profundity, it is on the surface that all truth is written. The truth is, tautologically, that there is no truth. Humans want for there to be some meaning to humanity; we construct entire societies and systems of politics in order to create this meaning. And with these noble endeavours there can and must always be a concomitant inhumanity. It is not that the creation of meaning is pointless or not worthwhile; simply that the making of meaning is also its unmaking; every birth necessitates a death.

Robert Carmichael, for me, critiques the shortsightedness of those who project blame on to women, when the log is in our own eyes. We might feel tempted to bite on the line that suggests that society creates Robert Carmichaels, and, as observations go, there is some truth in this. As Robert and his psycho (sicko?) pals walk through the Garden of England in the film’s final shot, however, we see that Robert is part of nature. Robert simply exists.

Interestingly, in the film’s final shot, Robert Carmichael is walking away, his back to us, enacting precisely the motion that we should have done were we truly revolted by this would-be revolutionary. But instead, we are still in our seats watching, and this alone reveals the lie, through the wonderful paradox of an externally projected film, that Robert Carmichael is not a monster out there, in a disgusting world that we do not want to accept, but that Robert is already in here, in us. Our eyes may see what Robert does – and they may be appalled by it; but also, monstrously, our eyes show through the very act of looking that the monster is within, that we are both male and female at the same time, and that adulthood consists of accepting this wholeheartedly.


Now, in many respects the 2013 essay represents many of the same ideas as the 2006/2007 essay – but in different form, and certainly with more refinement. In particular, I have since crystalised more clearly (mainly as a result of shortcoming I found in a paper by Noël Carroll on how movies teach us morality) the idea that films do not teach us how to act necessarily, but that they show us how we ourselves could be these people that we see, and that as a result of this, we can come to lead not a moral life (following behavioural guidelines by rote), but an ethical life (we decide for ourselves what we do; we take responsibility for our actions, even if where ‘we’ begin and end is not wholly clear-cut).

But, as mentioned, two ideas disappear from the published essay that are in the primitive version of the essay. These are: the notion that that which is ‘inhuman’ is always already in humans (the space that separates the words ‘in humans’ signifies how we deny the fact that inhumanity is in[ ]humanity); and the idea of getting Even, a kind of female revenge that involves becoming woman, becoming Eves rather than Adams.

Both are puns – and as such there is little room for them in academic essays. They might offer up a thought, but they present nothing conclusive. So I understand why the editors asked me get rid of them, and I comply – so I see that the essay is probably improved as a result.

But this does signal a wider issue, which is that academic essays tend increasingly less to feature what I might call creative or experimental aspects – with puns here being creative and experimental, in that they take pre-existing words and concepts (inhumanity; Even) and tease out of them new meanings (regarding the space that separates in from humanity when inhumanity is written as in humanity; regarding how getting Even might be related to Eve).

I had an email exchange with the editor of this issue of Projections, saying that I was aspiring to write in something like a Cavellian style when I first wrote the essay. They said they don’t much care for Cavell, and could I adopt a drier tone. Fair enough – that’s in some respects fine by me. But it also defeats in small part what I would like for an essay to be: that is, something that precisely asks us to re-think words and meanings, to take us in the direction of new thoughts.

Now, don’t get me wrong: most, many, some essays do contain the seeds of new thoughts. But not often in the experimental style that I was trying to use in that first/second draft from 2006/2007. And for me something really is lost.

I have been asked numerous times in my (brief) experience in academic writing to remove puns and what I consider to be mind-stretching ideas (puns as mind-stretching, the measure being my own mind that is stretched). I can loosely understand why: most readers are not reading for puns and might be irritated by the primitive nature of my thoughts. More often, the feedback simply says that the reader does not follow what I am saying/doing.

I cannot claim to be a great wordsmith, but I have my heroes and I aspire to their methods. And so it is always sad when little ideas like this have to go.

In short, I wonder that there might be more experimental writing – but academic publishing is not the place for it. Like I say, I can understand this. But it is always with sadness that a little idea must fall by the wayside.

So in the six years that it can take for an essay to go from germ to publication, it may well grow up and become something more rounded. But it also loses something a bit more fun in the process. I always find this a bit sad – where can these ideas find a home?

Why, in the blogosphere, of course!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s