The Banality of Violence: Art and the narrative of victimisation

Hanan Jasim Khammas, Visiting Doctoral Scholar at the CCL, writes:

Art is not a humanitarian institution. It should not be. It is an archive where statements articulating the human condition are organised. Some literary and artistic works use an excess of crude and explicit violence, aiming at calling public attention to certain humanitarian crises. These works cause more annihilation than aid as they use epistemic violence in the wrong direction: they promote suffering as a consumable product that satisfies the Other’s narcissistic demands, rather than sincerely awaken impulses for a better change.

To Hannah Arendt, violence “is rational to the extent that is effective in reaching the end that must justify it” and that it “can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals. Violence does not promote causes, neither history nor revolution, neither progress nor reaction; but it can serve to dramatize grievances and bring them to public attention” (On Violence [Harcourt, 1970], p. 79). If Arendt’s views are true, then what is happening in, for instance, the Middle East? Is it irrational violence? Or is there a different category in which the perpetuation of violence in the area can be read? It is evident that there seems to be no end, and no goals are achieved in the perpetual state of violence that affects the region. As Arendt argues, if goals are not met, violence becomes an ontological practice of the body politic.

One of the most striking aspects about the perpetuation of violence in the region, I have noticed, is not the failure to reach ends through rational violence, but rather the way violence is reported and condemned. It seems that the narrative and the political discourse which address violence, both internally and externally, endorse cause-and-effect dynamics which invoke the constant need for violent intervention. This can be seen in the representation of the victims of violence rather than in the depiction of perpetrators. For, as Susan Sontag show us, it is the power of the image to make something real (not more real) (Regarding the Pain of Others [Penguin, 2003], p. 19), and it is the depiction of victims that generates more victimhood, because, as Laura Mulvey explains, “the still image can generate identification and represent enigma without recourse to narrative closure” (Visual and Other Pleasures [Indiana UP, 1989], p. 141).

Such a mechanism can be found both in some representations of the “victims” in the fiction of American Iraq veterans – novels, stories and films like Phil Klay’s Redeployment (2014), Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds (2012), or Kayla Williams’s Love My Rifle More Than You (2005); and in some post-war narratives written by local authors. In the case of American Iraq veterans, fiction written by soldiers tend to dehumanise the Iraqi population by reducing them to the “enemy” or to the “relics of war”, a concept which I use to refer to the representation of dehumanised war victims, like Iraqi war victims, usually presented as wretched subaltern subjects annihilated by poverty, frustration and sexual repression or abuse. I call them “relics” because they engage the aesthetics of the relics: old-fashioned, squalid, fragile yet their presence entails an importance of a religious nature as they evoke the holiness and the sanctity of the “just” war, which was waged to save them in the first place. Although such works have the ultimate noble intention of making us sympathise with the soldiers by showing us the suffering and the pain that young people undergo in combat, they nevertheless perpetuate a discourse that justifies why these wars must be fought. They confirm the message behind war propaganda, making a statement about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. The violence employed and invested in such artistic works can be defined as what Walter Benjamin terms “law-preserving violence”: violence that perpetuates and serves the “legal” ends of the powerful state (Benjamin, Reflections [Mariner, 2019], p. 299).

Similarly, media, literature and art that assumes the ambitious task of exhibiting the suffering and the violence of wars and catastrophes, such as some of the works that depict the Syrian civil war (like Jan Dost’s Green Bus Leaving Aleppo, 2016), or the victimhood caused by ISIL (like Ali Bader’s The Infidel woman, 2015), or the refugee crisis (like Abdallah Al-Khatib’s documentary Little Palestine, 2021), perpetuate an image – and an imaginary – of the depicted people’s identity that can quickly turn into stigma, and which criticism constantly needs to challenge. Like veterans’ fiction, these works employ scenes of violence and extreme vulnerability as a mechanism of protest to condemn the unquestionable injustice and atrocities committed by war actors. However, the excess of information on the suffering of others, and the massive production of such images, as Susan Sontag argues, does not alleviate the victims’ pain. As the reality on the ground shows, it does not stop violence or amend circumstances, for this is not a “law-making violence”, nor it is a “law-preserving violence”. All it can do is to ease the viewers’ moral consciousness by the act of sympathising with the pain of others, distancing them from the victims, yet giving the viewers a sense of authority and moral obligation to do something about it, to “intervene”, “help” or “save” “them” – the classic clichés of modern colonial chauvinism.

The banality of violence is the way in which violence is perpetuated in the apparently most humanitarian and noble purposes of an artistic work. It lies in the unconscious perpetuation of the narrative of victimhood, reducing the depicted subject to an image of a dehumanised relic that serves to justify the source of its victimisation in the name of defending its rights.

Hanan Jasim Khassam is completing her Doctoral research at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona on the representation of the body in contemporary Iraqi fiction. As part of her Residency at the CCL, Hanan has organised the short seminar series Remnants of the Iraq Wars: Iraqi Literature Twenty Years after 9/11; she chaired the first event, Iraq: Corporeality & Memory. Iraqi literature, 20 years after 9/11 (7 September 2021) and will discuss her research in the second, Aftermath Bodies: Corporeality in Contemporary Iraqi Fiction (22 September 2021).