Perhaps since 9/11, definitely since Abu Ghraib and attacks on representations of Muhammad, there has been an accelerating interest in how images act in the world, both in art and beyond the gallery. In some respects the precursor to this critical interest was the resurgence of interest in iconoclasm, idolatry, and the image wars, whose principal document is the book Iconoclash (2002) but the literature on images outside art now includes a number of theorists: Nicholas Mirzoeff, Marie-José Mondzain, Horst Bredekamp, Charlotte Klonk, and Tom Mitchell.
This diverse field of theoretical perspectives and methods has created a productive clash of interpretive methods. Here I review the principal scholars’ positions on the issue and concentrate on four themes: the range of possibilities from images that represent to those that kill; how political images move through the world; the politics of incitement; and the question of when, or whether, to watch extremely violent images.
James Elkins is E. C. Chadbourne Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism (1989). BA, cum laude, 1977, Cornell University; MFA and MA, 1983, and PhD with honors, 1989, University of Chicago.
Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings; Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History; Pictures of the Body: Pain and Metamorphosis; The Domain of Images; How to Use Your Eyes; What Painting Is; The Poetics of Perspective; The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing; Why are our Pictures Puzzles?; On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them; What Happened to Art Criticism?; Six Stories from the End of Representation; Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction; What Photography Is; Art Critiques: A Guide.
James Elkins grew up in Ithaca, New York, separated from Cornell University by a quarter-mile of woods once owned by the naturalist Laurence Palmer. He stayed on in Ithaca long enough to get the BA degree (in English and Art History), with summer hitchhiking trips to Alaska, Mexico, Guatemala, the Caribbean, and Columbia. For the last twenty-five years he has lived in Chicago; he got a graduate degree in painting, and then switched to Art History, got another graduate degree, and went on to do the PhD in Art History, which he finished in 1989. (All from the University of Chicago.) Since then he has been teaching in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
He married Margaret MacNamidhe in 1994 on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands, off the West coast of Ireland. Margaret is also an art historian, with specialties in Delacroix and Picasso.
Jim’s interests include microscopy (with a Zeiss Nomarski differential interference microscope and Anoptral phase contrast), stereo photography (with a Realist camera), playing piano (contemporary “classical” music), and (whenever possible) winter ocean diving.
His writing focuses on the history and theory of images in art, science, and nature. Some of his books are exclusively on fine art (What Painting Is, Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?). Others include scientific and non-art images, writing systems, and archaeology (The Domain of Images, On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them), and some are about natural history (How to Use Your Eyes). His most recent books are What Photography Is, written against Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, and Art Critiques: A Guide.
Lars von Trier’s exploration of pornography as a cinematic language and, by reputation, his most provocative film, Nymph()maniac (2013, 2014) appropriately culminates his long-term fascination with the Marquis de Sade. It is also von Trier’s most literary and (arguably) least cinematic text. Although its hardcore content has drawn the most attention, my presentation claims that the site of the film’s vaunted obscenity, as in Sade, is its discourse – beginning with its mock-scandalous title, winking parentheses, and premise as the narrative of a female libertine. I will also address the larger question of whether, in a twenty-first century context, its Sadeian strategies are provocative and, if so, how.
As Marcel Hénoff asserts of Sade apropos of Justine and Juliette (1791, 1797), “only women [associated with nature] are accorded the privileged function of the narrative I,” with their libertine interlocutors [aligned with male culture] supplying the analysis or, rather, catechism. Juliette represents the paradox of the female libertine narrator, whose body/text transgresses gender identity. Thus, as Apollinaire asserted in his preface to the 1949 Pauvert edition, Sade wanted woman to be “as free as a man,” calling Juliette “the woman whose advent [Sade] anticipated, a figure of whom minds have as yet no conception, who is arising out of mankind,” a revolutionary. Accordingly, “Fill all my holes,” Joe’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg’s) refrain in Nymph()maniac, would be an assertion of insatiable, polymorphous desire – a refusal of monogamy, the procreative imperative, and the social order.
But as her eventual addiction and degradation reveal, Joe is no revolutionary, and the film may be less concerned with female sexuality than its own discourse of excess, its desire or compulsion “to say everything.” A Gargantuan hybrid, a cross between cinema, novel, encyclopedia, and treatise, the film most closely resembles anatomy, a genre favored by Sade’s greatest (and lengthiest) hits. Joe’s narrative/libidinal drive is matched by the Enlightenment rhetoric and “Digressionism” (von Trier’s term) of her interlocutor: the sixtyish virgin Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) whose discourse parodies Sade’s subversion of classical reasoning. The result, as in Sade, is a body reduced to its anatomical and functional materiality: dissected through statistical and alphabetical reduction (of thrusts, seduction strategies, lovers, and lashes spelled out in superimposed captions and numbers, especially Fibonacci sequences), catalogues (of penises, knots, and whips), analogies (with fly fishing, Eastern and Western Catholicism, and whatnot), diagrams, maps, and split screens. Especially in Volume I, the film becomes provocative in today’s reactionary yet sex-saturated climate for the Sadeian abstraction of its dissection of Joe’s “porn.”
Volume II, however, shifts to overt sadomasochism staged as melodrama. I will conclude by analyzing at least two examples of the latter that are as typical of von Trier’s provocations as they are different from Sade. One is the reputedly “unwatchable” ten-minute stretch depicting Joe’s self-administered coat-hanger abortion, which leaves Seligman, for the first time, speechless. The final sequence is unwatchable in another sense: cutting to a black screen with muffled sounds, it bewilders, disturbs, and/or enrages even the most favorably disposed audiences.
Linda Badley is Professor of English and Film Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. She has published widely in film, television, and popular culture and is the author of Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic (Greenwood 1995), Writing Horror and the Body (Greenwood 1996), and Lars von Trier (Illinois, 2011), and co-editor of Traditions in World Cinema (Edinburgh 2006). With R. Barton Palmer, she serves as general editor of the Traditions in World Cinema series at Edinburgh University Press and its companion series, Traditions in American Cinema. Her current work ranges from American independent women filmmakers to extreme cinema, transnational cinemas, and Scandinavian film, with special emphasis on the cinematic provocations of Lars von Trier. Recent and forthcoming publications include the co-edited volume Indie Reframed: Women Filmmakers and Contemporary American Cinema (Edinburgh, 2015) and articles such as “Antichrist, Misogyny and Witch Burning: The Nordic Cultural Contexts” (2013), “Cinema as Snuff” (2015), “At the Margins of Taste, In the Mouth of Madness: The Case of Lars von Trier” (2015), and “Nymphomaniac as Retro Scandinavian Blue” (2015).
1977 Ph.D. in English, University of Louisville
1967 M.A. in English, University of Iowa
1966 B.A., Oklahoma Baptist University
Professor, Middle Tennessee State University, 1990-present
Associate Professor, Middle Tennessee State University, 1984-1990
Assistant Professor, Middle Tennessee State University, 1979-84
Assistant Professor, Moorhead State University, Moorhead, Minnesota, 1978-79
Instructor, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, 1976-77
Teaching and Scholarship
film studies, Gothic studies, women’s and gender studies, science fiction and fantasy, popular culture, Victorian literature, modern and contemporary literature
General Editor. Traditions in American Cinema series (with R. Barton Palmer), Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, September 2013-present
General Editor. Traditions in World Cinema series (with R. Barton Palmer), Edinburgh:Edinburgh UP, Jan. 2005-present.
Associate Editor. Traditions in World Cinema series (with Steven Jay Schneider and R. Barton Palmer), Edinburgh UP, Jan. 2003-Dec. 2004.
Editorial Board: Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media, 2007-2012,
Editorial Board: Studies in Popular Culture, Spring 2001-present.
Indie Reframed: Women Filmmakers and Contemporary Independent Cinema. Ed. with Claire Perkins and Michele Schreiber. Traditions in American Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming 2016.
Lars von Trier. Contemporary Film Directors. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2011.
Traditions in World Cinema. Ed. with R. Barton Palmer and Steven Jay Schneider. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP; New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2006.
Writing Horror and the Body: The Fiction of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996.
Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995.
Representative Book Chapters and Journal Articles
“Down to the Bone: Neo-neo realism and Genre in Contemporary Women’s Indies.” Indie Reframed: Women and Contemporary Independent Cinema. Eds Linda Badley, Claire Perkins, and Michele Schreiber. Traditions in American Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming 2016.
“Nymphomaniac as Retro Scandinavian Blue.” Journal of Scandinavian Cinema.
Special Issue: Sexuality and Scandinavian Cinema, forthcoming in 2015.
“Cinema as Snuff from Pre-cinema to Shadow of the Vampire.” Snuff: Real Death and Screen Media. Eds Neil Jackson, Shaun Kimber, Johnny Walker, and Thomas Joseph Watson. London and New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, forthcoming 2015
“At the Margins of Taste, In the Mouth of Madness: The Case of Lars von Trier.” Global Fear: International Horror Directors. Eds Ralph Beliveau and Danny Shipka. London: Intellect, forthcoming 2015.
“Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely and Amazing: Naked Chick Flick.” US Independent Filmmaking
after 1989: Possible Films. Eds Constantine Verevis and Claire Perkins. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014. In press.
“Antichrist, Misogyny and Witch Burning: The Nordic Cultural Contexts.” Journal of Scandinavian Cinema 3.1 (March 2013): 15-33. “Bringing It All Back Home: Horror Cinema and/as Video Culture.” Horror Zone: The Cultural
Experience of Contemporary Horror Cinema. Ed. Ian Conrich. London: I. B. Tauris, Aug. 2010. 45-64.
“Zombie Splatter Comedy from Dawn to Shaun: Cannibal Carnivalesque.” Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead. Eds Marc Leverette and Shawn McIntosh. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008. 35-53.
“The Shadow and the Auteur: Herzog’s Kinski, Kinski’s Nosferatu, and Myths of Authorship.” Caligari’s Heirs: The German Cinema of Fear after 1945. Ed. Steffen Hantke. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007. 57-78.
“Danish Dogma: ‘Truth’ and Cultural Politics.” Traditions in World Cinema. Eds Linda Badley, R. Barton Palmer, and Steven Jay Schneider. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP; New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2006. 80-94.
“Cine-limbo: The Millennial/New Age Virtual Afterlife Thriller.” Studies in Popular Culture, 28.1 (Oct. 2005): 3-14.
“Spiritual Warfare: Postfeminism and the Cultural Politics of the Blair Witch Craze.” Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media 3 (Spring 2003). http://www.cult-media.com.
“Talking Heads, Unruly Women and Wound Culture: Dario Argento’s Trauma (1993). Kinoeye: New Perspectives on European Film. Dario Argento Special Issue, Part 2, 12.2 (14 June 2002). http://www.kinoeye.org/02/12/badley12.php.
“The Darker Side of Genius: The (Horror) Auteur Meets Freud’s Theory.” Horror Film and Psychoanalysis: Freud’s Worst Nightmare. Ed. Steven Jay Schneider. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 222-240.
“Scully Hits the Glass Ceiling: Postmodernism, Postfeminism, Posthumanism, and The X-Files.”
Fantasy Girls: Women in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television. Ed. Elyce Helford. New York: Roman and Littlefield, 2000. 61-90.
“The Rebirth of the Clinic: The Body as Alien in The X-Files.” “Deny All Knowledge”: Reading The X-Files. Eds David Lavery, Angela Hague, and Marla Cartwright. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1996. 148-67.
“The Medium is the Monster: Movie Grue and Books of Blood.” Consumable Goods. Ed. David Vaughan. Orono, Maine: The National Poetry Foundation/University of Maine, 1987. 63-73.
“Calvino engagé: Reading as Resistance in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.” Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 10 (1984): 101-111. Rpt. in Italo Calvino. Ed. Harold Bloom. Modern Critical Views. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. 69-76.