An Aesthetics of Injury from Baudelaire to Tarantino
Professor Ian Fleishman is an Assistant Professor of German at the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently serving as Visiting Professor and Academic Director at the Berlin Consortium of German Studies at the Freie Universität. Among other things, Prof. Fleishman’s work seeks to excavate the epistemological shift from modernism to postmodernism; most notably through sex and violence. His award-winning book, An Aesthetics of Injury: The Narrative Wound from Baudelaire to Tarantino, establishes wounding as a core aesthetic strategy in modern literature and film. It will be the topic of this interview.
This interview was conducted by Daniel Rhodes.
Daniel Rhodes: Thank you for joining me for a discussion of your recent book, An Aesthetics of Injury. Your choice of title suggests that a fresh form of aestheticism in general is perhaps as much at stake in your book as is your careful, yet exciting, analysis of literary and filmic violence. Prof. Fleishman, in brief, how would you describe aestheticism?
Ian Fleishman: Among other things, aestheticism, in my idiosyncratic usage, refers to the ambivalent triumph, alluded to above, of the ‘textual’ (or, in another discourse, ‘symbolic’) over what one might be tempted to think of as an unpresentable ‘real’. Throughout the course of the literary, cinematic and intellectual history sketched by An Aesthetics of Injury, the different filmmakers, authors and thinkers examined increasingly attempt to literalize images or idioms of injury (‘That comment cuts me to the bone!’) in order to restore the potency of what Nietzsche might have called worn-out metaphors deprived of sensuous power. But dead metaphors are hard to resurrect and my contention is that the repeated attempt to literalize the metaphorical only ends up making real, often autobiographical, experience into a metaphor or metonymy for something else — as it is, for instance, in Schroeter’s adaptation of Bachmann’s novel Malina, where the author’s real-life burn wounds come to symbolize a textual strategy of fragmentation and dismemberment or, perhaps even more pointedly, if less poignantly, in Rainald Goetz, where a live performative slash across the author’s forehead becomes a signifier for the evocation of blood it had been intended to illustrate and realize.
DR: A closely related concept, decadence, also plays a fundamental role in your critique. As with aestheticism, you’ve deliberately reimagined the term; making the inverse assertion that “if decadence […] upsets the hegemony of the whole over the part (or fragment), what I am calling aestheticism goes so far as to trouble the primacy of reality with regard to (its textual) representation.” What is the relationship between a text’s aestheticism and its decadence? In what sense do these literary traits inform each other?
IF: Yes, exactly. Given the way I define aestheticism, decadence would refer to the kind of productive textual fragmentation discussed above — or, more specifically, to the breakdown of a text into ever smaller parts: in Baudelaire, the collapse of a volume of poetry into its constitutive poems; in Cixous, the parsing of a sentence or phrase into its constitutive phonemes. I’m not entirely sure, now that you ask, if the relationship between these redefinitions of decadence and aestheticism is ever sufficiently explained in the book itself (although I certainly hope it is!), but essentially, the authors, thinkers and filmmakers discussed in An Aesthetics of Injury all attempt to access some purportedly more profound or more essential corporeal reality through strategies of textual dismemberment, to open the text, through its own undoing, to some deeper meaning that would exceed representation.
DR: Your story begins within the context of a specific literary tradition. A tradition built, at least in part, upon the assumption that good literature hurts. Or, as Kafka would famously have it, “we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, as if we were banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide.” What does it mean for literature to wound? Why must corporeal harm be the only true indicator of good literature?
IF: That’s the question. Part of what the book ended up being about was how fuzzy and abstract the appropriation of injury ultimately becomes as a poetic strategy. There’s something romantic and delightfully morbid about the notion that the true measure of an artwork is its capacity to visit harm upon its audience. When I began working on the project, I think I had, if maybe not entirely consciously, intended to celebrate this aesthetic of immediacy — to extol the affective potency of those texts that seek, paraphrasing Kafka, to bite and sting and stab. The longer I worked on this canon of what I’m calling a kind of pseudo-genre of the narrative wound, though, the more critical I became of the aesthetic mode it represents. The ceaseless insistence on literal, physical harm as a model for the artwork began to seem to me symptomatic of an attempted overcompensation for a disavowed rhetorical sterility or perceived aesthetic anesthesia. Which isn’t to say that the films and novels read in the book aren’t powerful or moving — far from it — but rather that the infliction of pain isn’t necessarily the best indicator of their aesthetic success.
DR: But why must this sense of immediacy be gained by horrifying the audience? In your book, you cite Cixous’ claim that “Ce qui est coupé repousse” (What is cut off, repulses/regrows), but isn’t it equally true that mutilation can lead to sublime, rather than repulsive, creations?
IF: In many, if not most, cases treated in the book, aesthetic mutilation, literal and/or figurative, is an attempt at a variety of sublime experience, certainly — especially in Bataille, perhaps. Rosemarie Brucher, for instance, has insightfully read bodily self-injury in performance art against the backdrop of the Kantian sublime. While the injuries I examine tend to be less literal, we might choose to regard the grotesque and the sublime as related, maybe complementary, modes or ‘forms’ of what Bataille would call the informe. My point is, of course, and this is probably the book’s central contention, that the literary or filmic (or, when it comes to Rainald Goetz, actual, corporeal) wound, is itself inscriptive, itself a kind of text: it doesn’t truly transcend symbolic structures or offer some immediate point of contact with an unmediated, ‘extratextual’ reality. Quite the opposite. To this extent, the phenomenon I’m describing might indeed resemble a kind of Kantian sublime, which ultimately involves the triumph of the human intellect over presentational, representational disintegration, of our capacity for conceptualization over unruly objects that would otherwise seem to exceed our comprehension.
Cixous’s assertion, on my reading, would be more aligned with your earlier question on decadence: it has less to do with epistemological issues than it does with a concrete poetics. What I discovered — in Baudelaire (where six censored poems are replaced by six times that many in subsequent editions), in Bataille (whose final novel builds on what remains of burnt drafts for a first), in Genet (whose “What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn into Precise Little Squares and Flushed Down the Shitter” elevates a crisis of writerly confidence and ensuing textual dismemberment to an avant-garde aesthetic strategy), in Cixous (who rewrites and unwrites an early fiction to conceal, or at least to obscure, the trauma inspiring it), in Tarantino (whose Kill Bill works to transform the scars of studio censorship into a pleasurable game of hide-and-seek for viewers in the know) — is that sometimes, often even, it is precisely the points of rupture, caesura or omission that prove the most generative. So much on the subject of growth, regrowth. The notion of revulsion (the other meaning of ‘Ce qui est coupé repousse’, as you point out) is in no way foreign to the sublime, which, for Burke, you’ll remember, involves plenty of unpleasantness, pain and even ugliness.
Embarrassingly enough, I actually came to this understanding of decadence in Baudelaire while, predictably, reading Bakhtin (who describes the grotesque in terms of bodies-in-becoming) and, by unpredictable but fortuitous coincidence, listening to a song by a band called the Maccabees with the lyrics “Body don’t break / Body don’t break / Body don’t break / Till broken / Body’s gonna make / Body’s gonna make / Body’s gonna make / Another body.” Basically, I guess my assertion is that a body-in-unbecoming is also a body-in-becoming, if that makes any sense. Sadly, an English indie rock band got there first.
DR: And yet, this admission is made considerably less surprising when we consider, if only for a wonderful moment, that you once taught a course entitled ‘Hipster Philosophy from Marx to Zizek.’
IF: [Laughs.] Indeed. I hope I’m not getting a reputation.
DR: Taking up the first subject of your study (and before you completely regret being interviewed by a former student), I’d like to discuss what Baudelaire refers to as “the old method [which] always consisted of showing the wound.” The alternative, “concealing in order to reveal,” however, seems to ignore some fundamental psychoanalytical theory. Hasn’t Freud taught us that a direct airing of grievances — a talking cure — is often necessary for emotional recovery?
IF: Baudelaire himself doesn’t discuss this method; it’s cited by his defenders as a justification when he is brought up on charges of obscenity. Over a hundred years later, Haneke will similarly cast his role as filmmaker as a sort of cultural diagnostician. The notion is that an artist not only has the right but indeed an obligation to depict naked violence. Tarantino then increasingly retracts this ethical imperative, figuring filmic violence instead as pure entertainment.
Regarding talking cures, I try to make clear in the book that I am, with a few notable exceptions, not talking about trauma per se, or not talking about trauma as trauma. (An inevitable association considering the title; the other Freudian question — namely, castration — is equally unavoidable.) During the Q&A on the occasion of my book launch, a colleague suggested to me that the wounds described in the book are maybe more akin to a talking cure itself than they would be to traumata: trauma is unassimilable, unnarratable, concealed or at the very least encoded; these texts all attempt to work through, to tell of wounds, even in the cases of Genet or Cixous, where the trauma they narrate is distorted or displaced.
I think it runs both ways. It’s been a commonplace, at least since Elaine Scarry’s Body in Pain, that physical suffering constitutes epistemological certainty but defies linguistic expression. In a similar vein, for the most part, the filmmakers and authors discussed in An Aesthetics of Injury tend to distrust narrative, chronological narrative, in general — preferring instead to fracture and fragment storytelling in the hope of allowing such presumably ‘untellable’ truths to emerge. This antinarrative bent is another aspect that I regard rather critically. It’s also part of the reason that Tarantino is included — not that Tarantino is a better filmmaker than, say, Schroeter or Haneke, but I think the return to the satisfaction of genre narrative, even if in the form of frivolous pastiche, adds another element to the discussion and gives a twist to the literary-filmic history I aspired to excavate.
DR: Your work not only uncovers recent literary and filmic trends, but also serves as a warning. Your final paragraph cautions of the “very real danger of an aesthetic of injury: in the absence of significance, all that would remain would be to leave another scar.” The narrative journey, began by Baudelaire in 1857, has finally led us to a place where literature and life are semantically indistinguishable; where can we hope to go from here?
IF: In the later chapters of the book — especially the portions on Jelinek, Haneke and Tarantino — we really begin to see what is ethically and epistemologically at issue in an aesthetic of injury. For at least a century and a half, the figure of the wound has been privileged by a certain tradition for its ostensible authenticity and/as immediacy. There’s a lot at stake, then, when the wound itself is revealed to be a figure of incessant mediation — we may as well think of it in terms of Derridean différance — contributing to and perpetuating the very phenomena of derealization and psychic insensitivity (in iterations from Baudelairean spleen to a postmodern waning of affect à la Fredric Jameson) it has almost always been intended to counter, harming in order to heal.
And yet even in an era where nearly nothing shocks us anymore, literary and filmic representations in a certain mode seem only to become more violent; in the work of the filmmakers and authors I discuss, and not only there, one is hard put to recognize even an attempt to come to an aesthetic sensibility not rooted in pain. Generally, I think it’s important that we begin to the work of defetishizing suffering. But, if anything, culturally we seem to be doing just the opposite.
DR: Can you talk about a bit about your current or upcoming work? What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
IF: In my next book I hope to map queer strategies of storytelling in the authors André Gide and Jean Genet as well as the filmmakers Werner Schroeter, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and, finally, skipping ahead a bit, Xavier Dolan. Admittedly, this next project will resemble An Aesthetics of Injury in scope — both chronological and geographic — and in its construction (or, rather, excavation) of a potentially surprising but hopefully still persuasive and coherent canon of auteurs. And like An Aesthetics of Injury, this new project is interested in the evolution (or undoing) of narrative form from modernism into the postmodern. Throughout Gide’s Faux-Monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters, 1925), for instance, the narrator (one of the narrators) complains about losing track of his own story and losing control over his characters — as if what Gide had really wanted to do was to write an erotic, a homoerotic fantasy and in failing to do so ended up inventing modernism. (I’m speaking very loosely and exaggerating slightly, obviously, but that’s the kernel of the question.) I’d like to examine how such acknowledgments of narrative arbitrariness might be correlated to differing or evolving attitudes toward (or performances of) sexual identity and orientation — queer narrative’s attempts to craft itself in response to abjection and also as deviant or even abject.
Another constellation of authors I’ve been working on includes Franz Kafka, Heinrich von Kleist and, maybe more surprisingly, Cormac McCarthy. Eventually I’d like to expand this to include J.M. Coetzee and begin to bring together a number of interrelated articles and conference papers as a book, but that’s a ways off still.
DR: Do these projects have titles yet?
IF: Working titles, I guess.
The title of the project on queer narrative changes almost daily, but at the moment I’m planning on calling it Counterfeit Identities: Camp Abjection from André Gide to Xavier Dolan. I’m not thrilled about the structural resemblance with the last book’s title, but I like its simplicity and think it gets the point across in a pretty straightforward way.
The other project is still too far out to need a title, but in my head I think of it as The World Unspoken, which is also the name of an essay on Kleist, Kafka and McCarthy that will be appearing soon in Comparative Literature Studies.
DR: This is very exciting news! By way of conclusion, what has drawn you to Comparative Literature?
IF: As you’ve probably gathered, I really like these kinds of literary histories: projects that allow me to reexamine evolving epistemologies — how we think about literature, film, poetics, rhetoric, aesthetics, politics, how we tell stories, how we moralize, how we express ourselves and forge identities, how all of this changes over time. That and a commitment to a methodology of close reading, a conviction that the best way to tease out the meaning of a text, its historical significance, the episteme it represents, is through meticulous attention to its formal construction.
DR: Prof. Fleishman, thank you for joining me today! From the day that I first stepped into your Nietzsche seminar, you’ve been a guiding force in my own education; both at UPenn and beyond. I’m very grateful for this opportunity to share your work with our readers. Until next time!