Still more crudely sacrificial figures abound, faceless or individualized figures of evil whose sole raison-d’être is to justify their undoing. Within the category of exploitation films targeting youth, Blacks, women, etc., all members of the “dominant” (adult, white, male…) group are obligatorily portrayed as monsters. The other day I tried to watch Trust (Hal Hartley, 1991), a well-regarded film about the odd couple formed by a pregnant high-school dropout and a nerd-genius young man. In the 30 minutes I was able to stand, unfeeling father #1 dies of heart attack after becoming enraged at learning of pregnancy; unfeeling football-playing boyfriend–an apprentice adult–refuses to marry pregnant sweetheart because it would upset college plans; unfeeling mother coldly accuses daughter of murder at father’s funeral and throws her out of house; unfeeling supervisor forces sensitive young man to repair shoddy electronic equipment–after which sensitive young man sticks supervisor’s head in a vise and walks off the job; sadistic father #2 brutalizes son after making him clean the already-clean bathroom several times; crazy woman on bench tells girl of the horrible boredom of her marriage; repulsive storekeeper tries to take sexual advantage of (underage) girl when she tries to buy beer. This material is as steeped in resentment as anything the Nazis or the Weather Underground could conceive; it is praised for its sensitivity to a female character who is shown slapping–and indirectly killing–one man (her father who slapped her first) and sticking a lighted cigarette into the eye of another (the storekeeper who was forcing her to undress).
Every artwork incarnates an anthropology. The more it is founded on the unproblematic discharge of resentment, the more sacrificial the anthropology. Thus we should be able to judge a society by the sacrificiality of its art. The Frankfurt school condemned modern bourgeois society for attempting to distract the people from their quest for socialist utopia with the resentful satisfactions of mass art; but Adorno u.s.w.never disentangle ethical truth from esthetic distinction. Our own critique makes no reference to the suspiciously snobbish notion of esthetic sensibility. The only sensibility that I have referred to here is ethical. An artwork that flatters our resentment raises rather than lowers the level of sacrificial violence in its vicinity.
Today’s critique of violence in the media, focused on content without concern for narrative structure, expresses in its mindless way the fundamental relationship between culture and violence: because violence is contagious, it is spread by its very presence. The mindlessness is itself the product of the violence of our dominant popular culture; once the latter becomes a barely disguised expression of resentment, we can forget about the niceties of narrative structure. No doubt this kind of critique overlooks the culture’s most egregious moral lapses, the twin evils of hero-worship and demonization in Braveheart and the like, which inhere not in violence per se but in the way its portrayal is justified. But we don’t notice these lapses because we’re not really following the story, just being borne along by the figures of violence. In condemning a work as pornographic, one doesn’t care how the sex acts fit into the plot.
Now that environmental writing is becoming big business, one wonders when the community of nature-worshipers will reach the critical mass at which the initiate’s beatific sense of superiority to others (the New Age definition of spirituality) dissolves in the agon of internal competition. At that point, one hopes, the postmodern flight from anthropology, of which this is but one of many examples, will be revealed as just one more of the deferrals inherent in anthropology. Knowledge cannot be sidestepped indefinitely; lucidity always wins out in the end.