Figuration/Disfiguration: Iconographies of Violence in Late Twentieth-Century Literature and Art

Robert Buch
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One of the most remarkable recent developments in the humanities has been the turn to the religious. Many current inquiries seem to converge in the attempt to discern the radical element of the religious as both the other to our secularized culture and as that which still animates it. This insight points us back to the work of Georges Bataille. Bataille has explored the appeal of the sacred and of sacrificial transgression through the study of representations of the mutilated and tormented human body. His anthology Tears of Eros presents samples of what could be called an iconography of disfiguration: paintings and photographs which feature an often disturbing combination of violence and erotic voyeurism. Bataille’s understanding of the kinship of death and eroticism reappears in the work of British painter Francis Bacon and in the fiction of the Mexican novelist Salvador Elizondo who has dedicated his best-known work, Farabeuf, to one of the most gruesome images in Bataille’s collection.

My analysis links these works to the tradition of martyr iconography and the ideas of redemption and transfiguration. Not only do these works draw on a repertoire of christological motifs (the crucifixion), they also ‘reconfigure,’ both literally and figuratively, the relation between the beholder and the images of agony on which they center. Bataille and those working along similar lines after him aim at an aesthetic experience which undoes the very distance that has traditionally been seen as its precondition. 'At once ecstatic and intolerable' (Bataille), the images and acts of transgression staged by these works trigger affective responses which are hard to reconcile. Not unlike the current critical discourse on the renewed virulence of the religious, the artistic and literary interventions staged in these works force us to take another look at the long-standing affinity between violence and the aesthetic.

Keywords: Georges Bataille, Francis Bacon, Salvador Elizondo, Images, Agony, Eroticism
Stream: Literature, Literary Studies, Media, Film Studies, Theatre, Communication, Aesthetics, Design, Philosophy, Ethics, Consciousness, Religion, Spirituality
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.

Robert Buch

Assistant Professor, Department of Germanic Studies, University of Chicago

Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, Stanford University 2003; Assistant Professor in Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago since the same year. Areas of specialization: German and French Literatures of the 19th and 20th century; special interest in critical theory and aesthetics; current book project “The Legacy of Laocoon. Violence and the Image in Late Twentieth Century Literature.” Recent conferences/talks: Boston College, NYU, Corpus Christi College Oxford, Cologne; forthcoming publications: “Métaphores et métamorphoses chez Claude Simon” in I. Albers / W. Nitsch (eds.), Transports. Les métaphores de Claude Simon (Peter Lang, 2005); “Zeugen und Zuschauer. Peter Weiss’ Die Ermittlung” in: Parapluie. Kulturen Künste Literaturen, Dec. 2005.

Ref: H06P0157