Torture Porn Lit

Heartsick-Chelsea-Cain-unabridged-compact-discs-Audio-Renaissance

Just read Heartsick by Chelsea Cain which I picked up looking for something else because, I think, Amazon named it the top thriller of 2007.

I didn’t altogether enjoy it — it seemed derivative (of Silence of the Lambs, although it does have the wit tacitly to acknowledge the debt when the psycho killer mockingly refers to the journalist as Clarice) and very, very gross.  It is gripping and well done in some ways — I wanted to read to the end to find out what would happen — but I was struck by the sheer bloody sadism of it.

It reminded me of a silly argument my brother and I had a while ago about the ethics and politics of so-called “torture porn” film, namely the Eli Roth Hostel movies.  It was silly because I think at that point neither of us had seen the movies… so if anything, I’d have to say he won the argument b/c it’s difficult to take a moral stance of condemnation about something you haven’t seen.   Although part of my point was, I refused to give in to the logic that because this on-the-face-of-it objectionable cultural object has become notorious, “you must see it yourself” to decide.  On the other hand, it’s hard to argue the position from ignorance.

Anyway, what I didn’t like about Heartsick is the back story involving the protagonist detective’s ten-day-long ordeal being slowly and lovingly tortured by the psycho serial killer he’d been investigating.  It actually works pretty well as back story to explain his particular trauma and what’s at stake for him in current case… but annoyingly, the novel is interwoven with day by day chronological accounts of that week and a half.  It’s really hard to take — painstaking description of what it’s like to drink drain cleaner, anyone? — and just seemed sadistic/self-indulgent in a mode of “can you top this” grossness.

I was mulling over the cultural meanings of ‘torture porn’ and thought of several possible explanations/causes for why this has trend emerged so clearly in the last decade or so.

  • Most obviously: sheer oneupsmanship in a modernist logic of greater and greater, purportedly more and more “daring,” transgressions.  This was basically the point I was making to Jake: within Modernist art of the early and mid 20th century, various forms of transgression, obscenity, and more and more realistic depiction of sex and violence became closely linked with artistic expression and a cultural vanguard.  One could think of this as the “First Amendment theory” of modernist transgression, in that to be “censored” or deplored becomes an almost necessary sign of artistic expression and integrity.  The thing is, though, that this dynamic has become tired and predictable when every gangsta rapper and thriller novelist or director participates in the same game.  Sorry, Eminem and Marilyn Manson, you are not James Joyce or Picasso bravely defying the philistines with your cds and DVDs sold at Walmart to every wanna-be radical tweener in America.  (Or for that matter Tarantino: I think he’s at his worst when he falls into this mode; most of the more interesting aspects of his movies have little to do with pushing the transgression envelope.)   And in this case, Chelsea Cain’s novel being that much grosser and more explicit than The Silence of the Lambs does not make it more daring.  Given that you can find stuff on the internet with a few keystrokes that would’ve made Henry Miller or James Joyce blush, that whole logic, which relies on certain dynamics of scarcity and concealment, is basically moot.  These days really radical, daring art is more likely to avoid this whole game of transgression entirely.
  • post-9/11 culture, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.  Needless to say a lot of the obsession with torture in pop culture comes directly out of this political/cultural dynamic: e.g. the t.v. series 24.  I’d assume that Saw and Hostel are part of this too, albeit less directly.
  • One other thought, a slightly less obvious one: in this novel anyway, there seemed to be a fascination with the idea of the body as art-work, and the serial killer as a kind of conceptual artist, carving and sculpting her victims’ bodies into new shapes.  A break in the original case came when the detective Archie noticed, looking at photos of all the crime victims, that the shape of a heart had been carved into all the torsos (hard to make out amid all the gore).  The journalist protagonist dyes her hair pink which I think is meant to link to this theme.   Like Jack the Ripper, these murderers are artist/author figures who leave their “signature” to be read by the police.  So here too we could link the trend to plastic surgery and various kinds of body-based conceptual art that views the human bodily as “plastic,” malleable and part of culture not nature.

Anything else going on here?  There’s always the possibility of whole-scale moral degeneration, I forgot that one…

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2 Responses

  1. Maybe inability to feel anything unless it hurts or bleeds. Yuk!

  2. Can I get results right away or will it take a bit to show up?

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