Whose Violence Is It?

Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers have initiated a great conversation. There is little question that experimental documentaries such as those discussed in this book often serve as invitations to creative thinking. Regardless of evaluation and judgement, these films merit discussion, offering probes into interlinked questions of representation, philosophy, and history. As anthropology, they may lack scientific method, but they nevertheless construct critical engagements with the world. Whether that engagement is necessarily an inquiry into the stakes of humanity and “our” proclivity for violence is another question, and this is precisely the anthropological blind spot that I would like to tease out here.

Let’s begin with the title. Violence in the possessive form presumes that violence exists independently from humans. And yet, as a word, it is inadequate to account for the killing and maiming of the animal world or the dangerous scale of weather events. As a universal concept, it fails to account for the diversity of violent acts and events. If violence, by definition, belongs to humans (who have named it), then the question of our capacity for and proximity to violence is pretty much already answered. By fabled, the authors refer to the popularity of the films under discussion, which ostensibly “authorize” the question of violence and trauma; more typically, a fable would refer to a story that has been repeated over time and sunk in to a given storyteller or community. These films strike me as something more like a cycle that belongs to the 2000s and 2010s, with significant predecessors in the late twentieth century. However, the authors do not speculate much on the historical contexts of the films in question. Finally, by experiment, they refer to the games that these films play with their spectators.

Throughout the book, the authors speculate on the ways that the four films in their corpus address their audiences and “our” very humanity, indexing “our” shared trauma and “our” identity as bad animals. At one point, the authors describe a “naturalized identity” between viewer and viewed. And yet, what if a viewer chose not to experience a shared trauma with the images on the screen? What if she recognized the diversity of humanity and was content to witness the varieties of violence that humans have enacted, experienced, and perpetrated on each other? Finally, do Baxstrom and Meyers themselves share an interior trauma with the traumatic scenes and images on display in these films? Or are they “thinking alongside”? Can they be in both places at once? In other words, the book makes many assumptions regarding identity, spectatorship, critical viewing, immersion, and shared humanity that remain uninterrogated.

My final point regards authorship and the cinematic auteur, another structuring concept that is taken for granted in this work. Both films by Lucien Castaing-Taylor are codirected by women, and collaboration is a prevalent feature of filmmaking at the Sensory Ethnography Lab. While the women are certainly credited by Baxstrom and Meyers, they are implicitly absorbed into a circle of three visionary men. Herzog’s overbearing persona is well understood, to the point where he can only parody himself (and I love the authors’ suggestion that Herzog’s thesis “may simply be conveyed by ‘Herzog just blurting out his thesis.’”) Baxstrom and Meyers recognize that part of the effect of Oppenheimer’s filmmaking is his apparent ceding of control to his interlocutors, and yet for him as well as for the other two auteurs, commentary from published interviews constitute vital sources for the authors’ readings of the films. The putatively universal human question of violent humanity is thus embedded in the shared vision of three male filmmakers, for whom film is a tool of expression and provocation.  

In conclusion, I will allow that Violence’s Fabled Experiment is a provocative and imaginative monograph, but the question of human violence is not of paramount importance for this spectator. Thinking alongside the films, one could go any number of places, but I would prefer to remain in the material world where the images are gathered, with the Indonesian people and their ghosts, with the labor of fishing and the textures of sound and light, the mass movement of sheep, the re-representation of cave drawings, the relationship between the Grizzly Man and his girlfriend, and so on. The violence is all out there and not in me, for which I am grateful.