For Dead of Winter Existential Crises: Read This
by R.H. Lossin
Maggie Nelson wrote The Art of Cruelty in the final years of the second administration of George W. Bush. A time, Nelson writes, when “there was no shortage of cruelties to contemplate.” It was also a time, like ours, when the very notion of moral complexity “came to be defined as…‘a willingness to be ‘intolerant in order to defend tolerance.’” Which is to say that when confronted with grave dilemmas concerning the deployment of very real cruelty, popular morality renounced any complexity and chose instead to think in “simple reversals.” According to Nelson, this is not only insufficient but its own source of cruelty. Instead, we need to “wade into the swamp, get intimate with discomfort and develop an appetite for nuance.”
This is a tall order when the contours of our political discourse are provided by the clownish horrors tweeted daily by our current “stable genius” in chief, but it is all the more important for this very reason. The cognitive effect of being bombarded by pugnacious inanities is tantamount to anesthesia. In Nelson’s words we are daily experiencing “the decimation of thought that Artaud at times imagined as a purification, but which the anti-intellectualism of contemporary American culture has repurposed into something utterly stultifying.” This foreclosure of nuanced intellectual engagement is perhaps the most serious effect of a presidential performance that, in terms of actual working politics, is just a loud sideshow.
Gil Scott Heron thought that being ‘shocked’ was a particularly American posture. “America” he noted “leads the world in shocks. Unfortunately America does not lead the world in deciphering the cause of shock.” Nelson isn’t concerned with locating causes, but she does point us towards a mode of thinking, and perhaps even being, that lies outside of the habitual pearl clutching that so often stands in for intellectual or active engagement. And The Art of Cruelty gives us, among other things, an explanation of why it is that being shocked makes us feel like we know something. Through an analysis of visual culture—from the films of Michael Hanneke to torture porn--Nelson argues that we have come to equate violence with truth. Therefore, being confronted with violent images and reacting to them not only gives us a thrill, but a sense that we have gained some greater understanding of the world and ourselves.
The “recknoning” of the title refers to this fundamental misapprehension. Indeed, the result of such an equation under Bush was a widely accepted program of torture and rendition in the name of truth seeking. It is important to be reminded of what should be an obvious relationship between actual torture and torture porn. But this is not a censorious book concerned with good and bad images. Nelson is asking how the politics of looking and exposure have failed to produce the empathy that the better-intentioned purveyors of violent content may have hoped.
“The question of what one should look at, along with attendant inquiries into the nature and effect of the images blowing by, has a creepy way of overtaking almost all other questions. This may in fact be part of the so-called image regime’s raison d’etre, rather than a puzzling side effect.”
So why read this in the middle of January when the world is literally and metaphorically so cold and dark? Because it is galvanizing to watch Nelson think through and think past this apparently inescapable spectacle. It is a book that offers a capacious definition of the political and one of the only works in recent memory that has managed to make a convincing ethical argument for artistic production. It might not be comforting, but it will wake you up and this is, I think, an invaluable gift.
R.H. Lossin is a PhD candidate at Columbia University.