‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’: the Dialectic of Sadism

I recently saw the film “Men who Hate Women”, under its lame english title “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. I hadn’t read the book, or any reviews, beforehand, just getting a vague sense that it was a very popular book. So when it turned out to be a gruelling saga of intense, unremitting, sexual violence, avenged by equally intense counter-violence from victims, I wasn’t entirely prepared.

I’m not going to review the film – as I found, there are thousands of reviews from feminist perspectives online. Nor am I going to comment on the central question that seems to divide them, of whether the film’s presentation of sexual violence and counter-violence is, overall, pornographic. But the, often very upsetting, scenes in the film prompted me to some reflections on violence, and since I’ve been discussing the political significance of violence recently, and since this is the place where I put my reflections, I decided to share.

What is the goal of violence? Obviously it can have any sort of external goal, it can be performed in order to prompt retaliation or to prove a point or to influence an artist or to perturb a tapir or anything else. But does it also have an internal goal, something that the mind pursues simply insofar as the mind is in ‘violence mode’?

By analogy, you might play chess or do scholarship for many external reasons – money, fun, status, etc. – but their internal goals are to capture the enemy king and rigorously demonstrate a true conclusion, respectively. I’m going to argue that the internal goal of violence is deeply ambivalent, embodying a dialectical tension between recognition and objectification.

I’ll define ‘violence’ in this post quite simply, as attempting to damage, restrain or hurt a human body using either hands or weapons. In fact, I’ll use an example to be even more concrete.

Imagine two men, A and B, in a desperate knife-fight. Observe first that as long as the possibility of escape is small, these two form a self-reinforcing motivational loop. A wants to stab B, and shows it by his actions. This frightens B, whose fear prompts him to look for ways to prevent A from stabbing him, which can best be done by stabbing A first. This intention to stab A frightens A, who thus has even more reason to stab B, who thus has more reason to stab A, etc.

This, it seems to me, is a basically wholesome sort of violence – it might be unfortunate or tragic that it’s happening, but it’s not viscerally disturbing or obscene. But now imagine that B has defeated A, who is now restrained. The same sorts of actions are performed by B – punching, slicing, cutting, kicking, etc. It’s all non-lethal, it’s not an attempt to kill A, just to hurt and damage him.

This, it seems to me, is no longer remotely wholesome: on the contrary, it is obscene, something that cannot be watched without discomfort and embarassment. This is what we might naturally call ‘sadistic’, a word which connotes a slightly sexual tone: like a sexual activity, this is something indecent and unsuitable to be shown in public.

But these two categories aren’t exhaustive – there is, at least, an intermediate category. For some short period after victory, we may be more tolerant of ‘sadistic’ violence, if it expresses the victor’s righteous anger. Indeed, if we were watching a film, and the hero ceased all efforts at violence immediately when they incapacitated the villain who has done so many terrible things, we might be somewhat disappointed. Cold-blooded torture is one thing, but if someone really deserves it, a few bitter tearful kicks in the stomach to someone who really deserves it are quite another. But the boundary between such ‘righteous anger’ and mere sadism is of course very hard to draw.

What explains this set of categories – wholesome, angry, and sadistic? Do they exhibit a theoretical unity under analysis?

In the knife-fight, A and B are concerned primarily with each other’s possible actions, with each other’s power. A is concerned with the power B has to injure or defeat him, and aims to remove or overcome this power. A thus on the one hand recognises B as an agent, as someone who can redefine the situation, as something more than a stable, passive, object. Yet this recognition simultaneously aims to deprive B of that power, that agency, and in doing so, to partially objectify him.

The ‘wholesomeness’ of this case resides in the fact that the moment of recognition stays on the surface, obscuring the moment of objectification. And insofar as the violence is kept within rules based on mutual respect – insofar as both sides fight fair, and accept surrender, this is reinforced.

But when one side is incapacitated, or otherwise helpless, but the violence continues, the moment of objectification emerges unbalanced by any recognition. The small measure of objectification involved in trying to restrict someone’s agency in specific respects now takes over, and the result is obscene, sadistic, violence, aiming to completely ‘incarnate’ the other person in the passive, quivering mound of flesh on the floor.

Why do we sometimes make an exception for ‘righteous anger’? Because the emotion of anger supplies a sense of threat, of the other person as dangerous and as defining the whole situation, even in the absence of a physical threat. For instance, if the enraged victor was victimised by their opponent in the past, the memory of that can make them feel victimised and ‘defensive’, and compel them to strike out violently at a target who is, physically, helpless, but still has psychological power over them.

A hypothesis, which I don’t think I can prove but which I suspect is true, is that sadism is really the same phenomenon, but psychically ramified, turned into a more durable, entrenched mental structure. That is, it may have its roots in insecurity, in a repressed and internalised sense of threat, just as righteous anger is rooted in the more obvious, temporary ‘insecurity’ that is constitutive of anger itself.

Anyway, the reflections sort of wrap up here.

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3 Responses to ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’: the Dialectic of Sadism

  1. Belinda says:

    Hey Luke, I like the difference between the knife fight and kicking the other person when they are down (and righteous anger should have passed). Do you have any thoughts about why objectification is bad? (I ask this because I just TAed the philosophy of sex course I think you have TAed before, and I have a hard time articulating what I think is problematic about sexual objectification when it is.)

    Also, were any of the feminist articles about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo insightful? I had a weird reaction to the idea of this movie, I had heard of the rape scene before going but after the ticket person cheerfully reminded me of it I had to get up before the movie started because I was crying. I think I was angry and mortiphied at the idea of explicit rape scenes being used for entertainment, particularly to make a female character ‘gritty’ or ‘cool’ as seemed somewhat inevitable. I had a hard time explaining the strength of my response to my partner (who was with me), I think because I was defensive about appearing weak, like I couldn’t handle the content of the film. Perhaps I would not have responded that way if I had not recently read ‘Don’t: A Woman’s Word’, a short but graphic autobiography involving child rape and pornography. At any rate, I have something of a distanced interest in what an intelligent feminist might have had to say about the whole thing.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      On the badness of objectification, I think it’s a complex concept so considered in different ways it will be bad in different ways. For instance, considered in isolation as an attitude to someone, it might be judged in terms of truthfulness and considered bad because it falsifies and distorts vitally important aspects of another person. Considered purely as an empirical variable with causes and effects it might be judged bad for it consequences, which might include violence or discrimination. Considered as a ‘project’, e.g. as trying to actively make someone conform to your objectifying perception of them, it might be judged in more deontological terms, possible as violating Kant’s rule about “treating other people as ends in themselves, never purely as a means to an end.” This is not a complete answer.

      On the film, I do think it was a good film, but watching it I certainly would have preferred certain parts to be less lingered over (such as the abundant photos of women murdered in various horrible ways). The reviews I read tended to divide over “is the film misogynistic/pornographic in its desire to show this stuff, or is it trying to condemn such violence and encourage us to see it as something to fight against?” I suspect the answer is ‘both’. This is also not a complete answer.

  2. Pingback: Sex and Violence: the Depth of Patriarchy | Majestic Equality

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