After 1945, American literature responded to changing scales and forms of violence, from the threat of nuclear annihilation to the violent clashes at Selma and Stonewall. It is no coincidence, then, that the phrase “senseless violence” gained greater rhetorical purchase in this era. Registering a powerful concern with the motivations and meanings of violence, the phrase can signal overwhelming emotional response and failure of understanding even as it can be deployed strategically to shift or obscure dynamics of victim and perpetrator.
Against this backdrop, writers and artists were exploring new ways to use the affordances of literary form to confront the limits of our ability to make sense of violence. Rather than merely representing scenes of senseless violence, fiction writers borrowed representational strategies from visual art in order to produce a reading experience of senseless violence. Senseless Violence defines four forms that afford this emotional and cognitive impasse: the frame, the happening, the collage, and the silhouette. Drawing on the legacy of abstract expressionism and the avant-garde, fiction writers including James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, Kathy Acker, and Toni Morrison responded to violence in the world with highly aestheticized portrayals of suffering that sought not to reveal the mechanisms of violence, but to reproduce the hermeneutic impasse of confronting violence without meaning or purpose. Each of these forms manifest senseless violence in order to inflict a form of pain on readers, one which resists resolution in the form of social critique, moral judgment, or cathartic emotional release.
Each chapter of Senseless Violence defines a form of senseless violence by locating a literary analogue to a visual mode of representation, reading, for example, Andy Warhol’s repeated frames of his silkscreens alongside James Baldwin’s use of a frame narrative. Like Baldwin, who used the frame to scramble the distinction between random and state-sanctioned violence, the writers in this study adapt visual strategies of representing violence in order to render it “senseless”; that is, as ambiguous, uninterpretable, or non-cathartic. These visual strategies–some with a long history, like the silhouette, and some invented after WWII, like the happening–enabled writers to produce fundamental ambiguities around scenes of violence that both invited and prevented forms of moral and political judgment. Rather than lament an aesthetic approach to violence as inferior to ethical judgment or social critique, I argue that the aesthetic–as meeting point between artistic form and emotional response–is a key site for understanding how violence shaped the literary innovations of postwar American literature and how attunement to form can enrich our understanding of violence in the world.
Introduction: In the Time of Senseless Violence
The Introduction locates senseless violence in the period after 1945, a historical moment marked by increasing cultural attention to race, gender, and sexuality as key categories of analysis. Tracing a literary history of violence from the avant-garde through post-structuralism, I argue that senseless violence is also a site where avant-garde concepts, such as Antonin Artaud’s theory of cruelty, are reimagined in an American context. American reinterpretations of avant-garde cruelty provide a set of forms that articulate new ways of responding to systemic violence that are grounded not only in social critique, but also in intimate encounters with texts.
Chapter One: Frame: Feeling the Shame of State Violence
“Frame” marks the turn toward senseless violence in texts that also critique state-sanctioned violence. This chapter examines the aesthetic practice of framing scenes of violence in both James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room and Andy Warhol’s “Race Riot” and “Electric Chair” silkscreen series from the 1960s. The frame is an aesthetic practice operating at the meeting point between random and state-sanctioned violence. Examining the ways framing relocates acts of violence within alternative temporal structures and drawing on queer theories of time (Ahmed 2006, Freeman 2010), I show how the frame moves audiences into a position suffused with the shame of state-sanctioned violence.
Chapter Two: Happening: Composing Suspense, Suspending Violation
“Happening” connects Flannery O’Connor’s fictional chance encounters, which often erupt in violence, to the invention of the performance art “happening” in the 1950s. Like O’Connor’s tightly plotted stories, performance art happenings place audiences in suspenseful anticipation of potential violence. The chapter interprets violent encounters in O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955) as literary happenings that anticipate the threat of violence in performance art of the 1960s, particularly Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964). Aligning O’Connor with avant-garde aesthetics reveals the happening as a form of producing suspense–a sensation in which audiences are suspended between knowing and not-knowing about a violent act.
Chapter Three: Collage: Shock, Recognition, and Readers’ Consent
“Collage” outlines a feminist theory of shock that reframes the concept of sexual consent. Ranging from Kathy Acker’s 1979 novel Blood and Guts in High School to Kathleen Hanna’s riot grrrl zines of the 1990s, this feminist avant-garde formation arose in a moment when anti-rape and anti-pornography activism made consent a key term in defining sexual violation. Through visual and literary depictions of shocking violence, these texts disrupt the reading experience and deny readers the implicit ability to consent to experience literary violence. When Acker and Hanna violate this form of consent that takes place between the reader and the text, they also expose the limits of consent as a framework for understanding sexual violence. Their collage texts create space for taboo affective responses to violence and, in doing so, expand the possibilities for responding to sexual violence.
Chapter Four: Silhouette: The Ethical Provocations of Disgust
Chapter four defines the silhouette as an aesthetic strategy of modulating disgust by leaving the “worse than the worst” (Brinkema 2014) hidden, provoking readers’ aesthetic interest in scenes of violence that remain fundamentally uncertain. Whether animating racist violence or anti-racist social critique, representations of the suffering black body have historically been expected to mobilize disgust for particular political ends. Reading across Kara Walker’s iconic visual silhouettes and Toni Morrison’s oeuvre, particularly her second novel Sula (1973), I reveal Morrison’s silhouette aesthetic and show how it emphasizes abstracted, affective experiences of violence, simultaneously highlighting and thwarting audiences’ desire for spectacles of black suffering. In erasing reliable signs of victims and perpetrators as well as the affective and visceral signs of bodies in pain, the silhouette stages an ethical dilemma in which black suffering cannot be mobilized for familiar ideological ends.
Conclusion: Reading Feeling
I conclude by considering the notion of “reading” in relationship to critical race, feminist, and queer theory. With a few notable exceptions, “readings” in these disciplinary formations are often defined as interpretive strategies grounded in social identity, rather than embodied engagements with literary and visual texts. Engaging theories of identity and reading by Michael Awkward (1988), Elizabeth Abel (1993), and Eve Sedgwick (2003), I advocate an approach to reading that accounts for the ways race, gender, and sexuality shape the affective experience of reading as much as the critical practice of interpretation. Finally, I argue that reading senseless violence allows us to more fully understand a complex range of emotional responses in readers, and to disrupt overdetermined representations of suffering and embodiment.