I recently gave an academic talk covering what I called the poetics of violence in narco-videos. Narco-videos are part of the cartels' public relations strategies that depict death and torture. They are not fun to watch, for me and for most people. They are a lo-tech and high-impact reflection of our culture; they are also creating our culture; they are consumed by (mostly) young men all over the world who watch them like porno. Reality TV Torture Porn. The videos are the foundation of the heroic myths, figures, and songs of the emerging Amexica narco-culture. They are the future of global capitalism.
For these very reasons, my talk, which I'll post when I get the video, was intentionally provocative. I argued that these representations of torture and mutilation betrayed certain truths about the logic of postmodern capitalism. I argued that they are merely extensions of capitalism’s aesthetic corollary, the material and symbolic institutions we call the art world, and what Anthony Julius calls its concrete aesthetic of transgression. I cited examples of theorists and artists who draw a relationship or equivalency between contemporary art and violence as signifying spectacle and discourse. In other words I said that these horrendous, immoral by any non-cartel standard, videos were art. And I analyzed them as such.
I presented examples of aesthetic intention within the work, and looked at how, through these formal details, political, social, and theoretical messages were being communicated. In essence I argued that these works of art reflected and fomented ideas about gender and power. Basically I said that the image or imaginary of masculinity in postmodern capitalism is that of a terminator, and the image or imaginary of the feminine is no longer a sexed up babe selling beer, but a mutilated and naked cadaver. And that all this reflects exactly the structure of power used by the state to maintain its authority in a “state of exception.”
I relied heavily on the work of Elaine Scarry, Luce Irigaray, and Georges Bataille in my argumentation, but it seems that the controversial nature of my conclusions as well as the emotional effect of my object of study, stood out more than the philosophical theater I was enacting. The two academics seated at the table with me, proceeded to, somewhat passively, attack both my argument and my morality. Both of their critiques could be seen as either ideological or moral, critiques I tend to ignore simple because they are impossible to resolve, based on assumptions which are either unquestioned or difficult to question. But both of them said something I found very interesting and which I think is worth reflecting upon; they said: “I don't need to see this.”
I find the use of the word “need” very telling. It implies that the speaker is familiar with the subject. That they already have sufficient experience to draw conclusions. It insulates the speaker from the other phrase: I don't want to see this. This is very simple: “I don't want to see this; it's painful / I don't need to see this; I already know it; I've seen enough of it.” I can say with all certainty that I don't want to see boys and girls, and men and women tortured in the service of state and non-state actors. I don't want to see the transformations of bodies in pain into the insignia of masculine power. But I think we all need to see it.
I've met my fair share of state and non-state violence in my life. More than my fair share considering I have mostly lived in (the ghettos of) rich, relatively stable countries most of my life. From child-rapists, to nuns who beat and stripped boys and girl in front of the class, to men and cops who hate hippie-punk faggots, violence has been the primary creative force in my life. I want to mention one event in particular. Once when 4 cops were beating me after I was restrained and on the floor, one of them grabbed my throat, strangling me. His words were quite simple and telling: stop talking and I'll let you live. I didn't stop screaming at them. And he choked me until I lost consciousness. This control over a voice, this transfer of power from one body to another body('s fiction) is the very essence of violence. And even though I thought that that moment meant my death, even though I have witnessed and been subject to many more examples of state and non-state violence (is there a difference? does all violence work to maintain the State?), even though I have fallen for the fictions and pleasure that domination over another body offers, I can say with certainty that I am still only beginning to understand the functions and impacts of violence. My question to everyone who says “I don't need to see this,” is quite simple: How do we fight or resist a thing (ubiquitous in ourselves and in the world) in front of which we choose to remain blind?
The people who tend to say to me, "I don't need to see this" (I have no idea about the personal lives of the two presenters who prompted these musings, this is not about them personally), are not the ones who have lost their own (friends, family, sense of self) to violence. They tend to be the ones insulated (by gates, by money, by private police) from it. They tend to be the ones whose lifestyles profit from it. I hope my work is offensive to them, to power.
A close friend of mine, when we first met, was looking through my portfolio and started crying. She said, “Why are you showing this to us, haven't we seen enough of it?” She had seen enough of it. She told me about living in near poverty in Mexico City (she has always lived in poor neighborhoods with a high level of material insecurity). She told me: about having been raped 6 times in half as many years; about robberies, drugs, domestic violence; about protecting abusers and loosing family to jail and death... While I cried with her, my answer then is the same as my answer now: because I want to find a way to stop it. She understood.
I know my own kind. I feel an immediate affinity when I meet other victims of violence (those who become abusers and those who somehow transform). They tell me their stories. I listen. I tell them mine. Fuck you if this hurts your sensibilities, or offends your morality. Learn to take us seriously; your future also depends on it.