Violence and Visual Media in the Contemporary Global Novel

Author: ORCID icon
Galvin, Annie, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Levenson, Michael, English, University of Virginia
Chakravorty, Mrinalini, English, University of Virginia
Luftig, Victor, English, University of Virginia

Theorists of late-20th-century violence Ronald Bogue and Marcel Cornis-Pope have characterized our contemporary media landscape as “a permanent spectacle of violence,” a “theater of overstimulation.” At the same time, violence across the globe is waged out of sight: under conditions of political detention, via drone-operation commands, in domestic settings, and through damage done to human bodies by conditions of economic deprivation. Given this tension between hyper-visibility and invisibility that characterizes how political violence is represented and disseminated across 21st-century global mediascapes, this dissertation argues that the novel affords unique formal opportunities for portraying and ethically grappling with extreme phenomena, thus supplementing and invigorating approaches to violence taken by political scientists, anthropologists, legal scholars, and media theorists.

This interdisciplinary project explores novels that address formations of political violence—such as terrorism and counter-terrorism, state responses to ecological disaster, and enforced material deprivation—which pose extremely complex problems of representation and response. “Violence and Visual Media” thus addresses two major questions within the discipline of global Anglophone literature: first, with the nature of political violence constantly morphing (due to advances in technology, changing forms of warfare, and new modalities of perception), what avenues for representation and visibility can a literary form like the novel afford, in the midst of a crowded and globally reaching visual and discursive field? Second, and related, what does the future hold for the novel, as just one form within a contemporary media ecology that is constantly breeding new platforms, formats, and interfaces for visual representation and narrative design? In answering these questions, the project considers an archive of novels that seek to represent violence in their narratives, but also by integrating ekphrastic descriptions of visual media, primarily photography, film, and images found on the Internet. Novels that combine narrative and ekphrasis activate modes of visualizing and attending to violence that emerge as alternatives to the perceptual horizons that other media afford.

Each chapter of “Violence and Visual Media” examines the force that visual mediums exert on the novel as a whole, foregrounding how visual texts enable the novel to excavate and interrogate how these neighboring forms confront violent phenomena. The first chapter confronts the vast archives of disaster imagery found on the Internet, which in their excessive quantity pose a specific set of challenges and opportunities to the print novel. Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (2013) brings the Internet into the novel in order to ponder what online visual archives—defined by their plenitude and global reach—offer as repositories for cultural memory. Within the novel, Internet communication facilitates but also obfuscates experiences of political rupture. Ozeki’s novel in particular invokes the phenomenology of networked digital image archives, including Google Image searches and video-sharing sites. These technologies enable distant viewers to encounter catastrophes like the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami; yet their inclusion in the novel, as I show, reveals how they prioritize staggering excesses of visual information over attention to the deep historical contexts of contemporary catastrophes. By examining how characters engage with both written and visual documents about overwhelming loss, I propose how we might reorient the activity of “paying attention” toward ethical ends in the age of the Internet.

The second chapter turns to a different domain of media, as Barry’s City of Bohane deploys ekphrastic renderings of printed photographs in order to uncover hidden violences and bring to light historical connections that may not be immediately apparent. Along with photographic ekphrasis, City of Bohane deploys allegory and speculative fiction as it predicts the ravages of post-2008 austerity that certain political discourses and policies seek to repress. City of Bohane confronts the past, present, and potential future of Irish austerity through allegory and a sustained engagement with visual media forms. The chapter contextualizes contemporary austerity within a deep historical time frame that is often obscured or left out of present discourse surrounding this increasingly relevant political paradigm. Exploring what I term “the aesthetics of austerity” in the novel, I unpack how City of Bohane speaks otherwise about this political response to economic crisis through a complex allegorical lens, making visible how forms of slow violence, to use Rob Nixon’s theory, including environmental degradation and economic oppression, can symbolically or even materially manifest as spectacular eruptions of physical, person-to-person violence. My analysis homes in on a short chapter that contains an ekphrastically rendered catalog of photographs taken during a violent feud, and I demonstrate how this aesthetic gestures toward a transhistorical and intersectional solidarity that brings into view a horizon of possibility for urgently needed political change.

My final chapter asks why the spectral presence and subsequent absence of the Twin Towers on the Manhattan skyline looms so large in post-9/11 literature, while the spaces of state confinement established during the subsequent War on Terror largely have yet to be explored in fictional worlds. The destruction of the Twin Towers has become so ubiquitous in post-9/11 visual culture that Miles Orvell has labeled that phenomenon “the destructive sublime,” while in the contemporary novel, the gesture of ekphrastically describing the falling towers on TV has become a common trope, appearing in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, as well as Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. These novels present the ekphrastic record of 9/11 from a variety of geographic standpoints and thereby situate it within a global frame of perception. These passages, viewed together, challenge a privileged, US-centric perspective that dwells upon 9/11 as an open wound and thus threatens to justify the executive and legal overreach that followed. While 9/11 has left indelible marks in visual culture and literary narratives, the US-led War on Terror, waged in response to the attacks, is largely conducted outside of public view, particularly in sites of extraordinary rendition such as Guantánamo Bay, CIA “black sites,” and British “control order houses.”

As the purposefully obscured successors to the spectacle of 9/11, these spaces of state confinement remain outside the limits of recent fictional worlds, with a few exceptions. The chapter explores how Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows (2009) foregrounds the spectral presence of the destroyed Towers while also leaving one of her protagonists, Raza, on the threshold of a potentially lifelong detention in Guantánamo Bay. I read Shamsie’s allusions to that space of confinement alongside work by the British artist Edmund Clark, who gained rare civilian access to Guantánamo Bay to photograph his series Guantánamo: If the Light Goes Out. Through this comparative analysis, I consider the moral force of absence: the specter of Guantánamo that haunts Shamsie’s novel and the absent physical body in Clark’s photographs, which portray Guantánamo as an architectural and biopolitical space evacuated of human life. Shamsie’s decision to end her narrative just before Raza enters Guantánamo achieves a similar effect: forcing the reader to fill that spectral space of confinement with her imagination of what lies ahead for human detainees.

“Violence and Visual Media” thus moves between close examination of ekphrastic passages and deep analysis of novels within their historical and global contexts. In so doing, the project offers a new way of reading contemporary literature in relation to global politics and in concert with its neighboring visual media forms. Ultimately, it suggests new approaches to thinking about how novels in particular, and works of art more broadly, might compel us to apprehend, wrestle with, and respond to atrocities in a deeply considered and sustained way.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Literature, Global, Novel, Violence, Media
Issued Date: