Violences in Language
Recalling the days after Bush’s re-election, Toni Morrison wrote an article for The Nation outlining the strategies malicious forces use to take control of the collective imagination. They start with language, with using language to subjugate: “the first step of a despot whose instinctive acts of malevolence are not simply mindless or evil; they are also perceptive…their plan is simple: 1. Select a useful enemy—an ‘Other’—to convert rage into conflict, even war,” she writes. Isolating the self from “an Other” may be the primal first step in disassociation; the distinction between “us” and “them” where the death of connection begins. Examining the category of “an Other” as not just a place for violence, but as a locality for repair, Morrison complicates the us-them binary, suggesting that this relationship could be where we bridge the damage the despotic imagination does in separating us from others, and from ourselves.
Jonathan Demme adapted Morrison’s novel Beloved—a story often mistaken as a ghost story—for the screen. Around the time the film was released, a Letter to the Editor appeared in the Times, clarifying that Beloved “gives us a tragic portrait of a female slave-child who suffered from retarded social development as a result of being deprived of normal parental associations,” not the story of an apparition, though both the protagonist and the child cope with the haunting of their respective traumas. By mothering the child (Beloved) who suddenly enters her life, Sethe (played by Oprah) seeks self-forgiveness for the violence of killing her own baby in order to save her from enslavement. Through loving and caring for the child, Sethe gets closer to healing from what a cruel social order pushed her to do as a protective mother. This act questions what it means to be ethical in a corrupt world.
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It’s no surprise Demme was interested in adapting this story. Throughout his career, Demme explored subjugation and violence in his films, portraying both villains and victims as fully human. He traced the emergence of these complicated characters from our known world and social systems rather than imagining them as separate from our lives, thus implicating the viewer in both the production of evil and its consequence. This portrayal is most notable in his classic, The Silence of the Lambs, where by using subjective camera shots (extreme close-ups), Demme stripped away the distance of the camera and put the viewer in the mind of his characters, most startlingly, the two killers, Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter. “What we discover in this corner is a human being—damaged, no doubt, but still capable of emotions like happiness and frustration. By refusing to demonise Bill, like so many screen killers in the past, the film creates a more compelling, and, consequently, more frightening experience,” Danilo Castro notes of the film.
A deeply psychological portrait, what The Silence of the Lambs so expertly does is put America on display as much as Hannibal. The men around Clarice, the young FBI agent on her first big case, subject her body (and those of murdered women) to their gaze and patronize Clarice throughout the film. This makes scenes where Clarice studies the portraits of Buffalo Bill’s dismembered female bodies even more compelling—perhaps she sees a piece of her own existence in the death of these women. The male agents are simultaneously obsessed with the abuse and killing of women (as are most horror films) and deeply uncomfortable with, if not outright hostile to, the strength, intellect, and ambition in Clarice, her vitality, excusing her from rooms when more gruesome parts of a case are discussed so as to “protect her.” With all of this, the mostly male investigative team is positioned as a violent actor against Clarice, a point famously complicated with the final conversation between Clarice and Hannibal at the end of the movie when he alludes to a forthcoming murder of one of these men.
Despite some critical reaction from corners of queer and feminist scholars to the film, The Silence of the Lambs seems to be interested in complicating all categories in which we try to place the “Other,” in relation to gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. This argument is even extended to the motif of animal bodies in the film, suggesting that the origin of our violence, and compassion, may begin in a smaller place than with how we relate to our human counterparts: Buffalo Bill’s last remaining connection to his own humanity is to his little dog, Clarice is haunted by not being able to save a lamb from slaughter as a child, scenes of human skin is made analogous to that of the moth. By aligning human and animal lives in this way, the film asks us: What are the deep, psychological roots of violence, and which of the daily violences against the body do we ignore?
Representing animal suffering alongside the capacity for humans to kill in horror films is an ongoing trope. Most recently, I think of the moment in Get Out where Chris, the protagonist, takes pause after his girlfriend, Rose, hits and kills a deer with little remorse—foreshadowing a deep cruelty in her character and the social forces of racial exploitation and violence she comes to represent.
In another Morrison book, The Bluest Eye, which portrays the othering and abuse of the main character, Pecola, a young Black girl who sees herself and her emotional experience reflected in animals, those who are also hurt without intervention or consequence. One day, as Pecola follows a white boy from her neighborhood into his home, an invitation he offered to Pecola because he found her so ugly and strange – so Other, the boy decides to make Pecola his “prisoner,” wanting to dominate her. From here, we learn that the boy often displaces his anger onto an animal, his cat: “As he grew older, he learned how to direct his hatred of his mother to the cat, and spent some happy moments watching it suffer.” The boy’s pleasure in harming the animal amplifies when he senses this causes Pecola discomfort, executing his power over both lives he trapped in his house.
Alternatively, Pecola is drawn to the animal with cautious empathy, taken by the way the cat moves about the room and his transfixing eyes: “The light made them shine like blue ice. Pecola rubbed the cat’s head; he whined, his tongue flicking with pleasure. The blue eyes in the black face held her.” This connection to an animal not only complicates Pecola’s desire to alter her appearance (the cat having the blue eyes she desires throughout the text as a way to be more “beautiful”), but the fact that the cat’s eyes “held her” signals that some sort of communion or connection was shared between Pecola and the animal.
Perhaps this gaze is an impulse simply born out of Pecola’s childlike curiosity, or it could be that she sees something about herself in the animal. After the boy brutalizes the cat, leading to the cat’s death, the boy “pointed to the radiator, where the cat lay, its blue eyes closed, leaving only an empty, black, and helpless face,” did Pecola find her own feeling of “helplessness” in this abuse? Is the abuse of one life, the acceptance of the subhuman category, a prerequisite for harming others?
Morrison changes the subject position of the cat from “he” when the cat was alive to “it” after the boy kills the animal. The cat went from being to thing. And here too we see refracted the process by which a human, like Pecola, may lose their beingness in the eyes of those who have some sort of power over them, how they too can become a thing. When the human becomes something we can no longer understand or empathize with, they become something we no longer protect. The consequence of this in a community system, in a country, is amplified by Morrison’s representation of Black girlhood in America, in all the ways Pecola is hurt in the book by those who are meant to care for her.
Perhaps if we start by questioning how we treat animal lives, what we consider to be the creatures below us, we may reveal a possibility for challenging the fundamentals of the practice of dominating another life at the source and instead acknowledge the whole of which each person, each life, is a part. This may ask us to redefine what is human, and to challenge the human point-of-view as that by which all else is defined in language and storytelling.
In “Theorizing Queer Inhumanisms,” Muñoz argues that “theories of posthumanism and animal studies have much to learn from critical race studies. Black people in particular have been treated as both animalistic and cruel toward animals,” having been both denied rights because of their “animalness” or because of the assumption of animal abuse. This complex discourse around Black bodies multiplies when intersecting with a female or queer identity because of the history of those bodies being abused on the premise of them being labeled as less than human and therefore acceptable for violation.
Within these violent histories, nearing a conversation in which de-emphasizing the distinction between what is animal, and therefore acceptable for discrimination and abuse, and what is not, feels dangerous. An awareness of these legacies is critical to maintain when applying posthumanist language to the analysis of literature or film, in particular for texts dealing with Black girlhood, as is the subject of The Bluest Eye and its main characters: three young Black girls, two of whom have been sexually assaulted to varying degrees, but all who share a vulnerable position in the world they inhabit directly related to class, race, and gender.
“As long as humans feel they are forced to defend their own rights and worth by placing someone beneath them, oppression will not end,” writes Marjorie Spiegel in The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, a text concerned with the way these conversations around animal rights are framed and the potential danger of holding them while thinking through human abuses. How does one discuss the suffering of an animal without diminishing the experience of human suffering, and how does one allow both to matter?
Muñoz suggests that “a more productive entry point might be to interrogate anthropocentrism as a colonial discourse that in turn requires decolonizing…[to] open up possibilities for relating to nonhuman objects and beings beyond strict spatial and categorical separations” in a way that imagines “recovering things and beings that are continually rendered disposable as a result of colonial capitalism and cis-heteropatriarchy.” Deconstructing the animal-human divide in this approach then may be a way to define why a life is objectified and essentially erased and to seek to eliminate the power structures that produce such subjugation. As Morrison suggests, this may begin in the imagination, in how we categorize.
By establishing two starkly different family systems in The Bluest Eye with the Breedloves and the MacTeers, Morrison presents the possibility for the posthumanist and ecocentric (as opposed to anthropocentric) as where we can begin to imagine all of life in existence in a community. Here, there are ripple effects from the trauma of an individual outward—all the citizens of a community are responsible, to an extent, for each other. And so there is a collective investment in understanding who is seen as “thing” and in challenging the category of “animal” and “human” as a move towards resisting the emergence of division and violence. Languages hinge on their own systems and structures, forming a singular imagination that cycles within itself. So by not permitting a living being to become an “it” or a “thing,” the imagination in language can be reinvented. By reading the construction of The Bluest Eye as a challenge to humanism, that the individual human is at the center of the world rather than a piece of a larger system, the underlying distinctions between humans, animals, society, and the earth are troubled.
Each section of The Bluest Eye is organized by a time of year: Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer. This structure emphasizes the shared occupancy between time of all the characters and highlights their interconnectedness. The title of the chapters with Pecola repeat a nursery rhyme but play with the construction and syntax in the presentation of the lines. By jamming the words together and signaling to the reader that there is no room for a breath, for distinguishing between parts,“SEETHECATITGOESMEOWMEOW-COMEANDPLAYCOMEPLAYWITHJANETHEKITTEN-WILLNOTPLAYPLAYPLAYPLA,” Morrison makes indistinguishable “Jane” and “the kitten” while also demonstrating how stories and myths are retold, built from language—and signals the possibility for their deconstruction.
By questioning the representation of animals in literature and language as an object and a cultural product, I am drawn to understanding how the consumption of animals as food deepens the conversation around storytelling, what and who we call “food.” Stories are built through the way we eat and so the process of one’s eating may also reveal a piece of the relationship to “an Other.”
In his seminal book on the factory farming system, Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer watches his son partake in the ritual of eating: “The first desire my son had, wordlessly and before reason, was the desire to eat. Seconds after being born, he was breastfeeding. I watched him with an awe that had no precedent in my life. Without explanation or experience, he knew what to do…it bound me, across generations, to others.” The food consumed by the child in this moment signals their connection to the community, to the family, to the self. And so what that food is and what it represents becomes critical. What does it mean if that food is the body of an animal?
Food, of course, is layered in cultural and personal history, questions of access and education, so it is, simply, a complicated site for interrogation. To condemn meat eating could be seen as a vilification of a culture, an idea that Foer struggles with throughout the text, questioning what his choice to be vegetarian means if it requires him to reject a chicken dinner prepared by his grandmother who survived the Holocaust and sees meat as a symbol of survival.
Still, the process of turning “animals” into “food,” a “chicken” into “nugget,” is an immensely violent practice and often demonstrates the eater as seeing animal life as subordinate to their own, of propagating violence against a being who cannot speak for or defend themselves. Many put an entire industrial complex between their plate and the death of the animal so as to not see what it means for that life to end, a confrontation Foer seeks to make in his book as he visits various sites of the animal agriculture system. Globally, 70 billion animals are killed for food each year and most of these deaths occur in factory farm systems, industrialized systems designed to mechanize the killing of animals. This means these animals live their short lives in horrific conditions in addition to being slaughtered. This means the workers who process their bodies are likely to suffer severe physical injury, economic exploitation, and psychological trauma.
The ritual of eating meat signals, whether consciously or not, that the life of an animal is ours because they are other. Not only this, but because of the sereve environmental impact of factory farming (one of the top contributors to climate change) and the overall inefficiency of using land to raise animals for food, eating meat also signals the death of the earth and poses a great environmental risk to societies. As Peter Singer writes in Animal Liberation, “Human beings have the power to continue to oppress other species forever, or until we make this planet unsuitable for living beings. Will our tyranny continue, proving that we really are the selfish tyrants that the most cynical of poets and philosophers have always said we are? Or will we rise to the challenge and prove our capacity for genuine altruism by ending our ruthless exploitation of the species in our power, not because we are forced to do so by rebels or terrorists, but because we recognize that our position is morally indefensible?”
Commodification, violence, sexual abuse, discrimination, consumption, and pleasure all seem to be linked through language—how we describe these acts. If we question what we mean when we say “other,” “it,” “animal,” “subhuman,” “food,” could we discover ways to disrupt our human-centered hierarchical frameworks of seeing and allow for new ones to emerge? Could we begin to reveal important connections between anthropocentrism, othering, and violence when discussing issues of inequity simply by looking at language?
By evaluating how we categorize, we may find a new way to discuss the body that pushes against the histories of violence born from oppressive social systems. The answer to a new collective vision might be somewhere within making space in the intersectionality between anti-oppression movements. Feminism, anti-racism, and LGBTQ+ activists and scholars must (and are slowly) learning to engage with the philosophical inheritance their movements share with veganism. As Alice Walker writes in the introduction for the Spiegel text, one that seems intensely aware of how “dreaded” such a suggestion for inclusivity may be, “the animals of the word exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.” What this asks of the thinker is to acknowledge their lack of ownership over any life that is not their own, to trace the idea of the acceptability of ownership to inception, and to move towards a more wholly compassionate relational system.
Another way to respond to resistance to posthumanism is to reframe the comparison that is being made. The question is not whether it matters more that humans are enslaved or cows, if hitting a pig means the same legally as hitting a child, but rather that we must resist the mental processes and conceptual frameworks necessary to subjugate, abuse, or oppress any living being. The real shared space between anti-oppression movements might be the elimination of the “sub-human” category. “For example, saying, ‘Black people experience racism and, therefore, are treated like animals’ is redundant simply because racism is already entangled with speciesism. What black folks are experiencing isn’t ‘like’ non-human animal oppression…it is a layer of it,” Aph Ko argues, and “if we don’t get to the root of oppressive behavior, then we risk reproducing the oppressive framework in our own liberation movements.”
What Aph Ko and her peers are pointing to is the way in which stories of the sub-human are carried and propagated through language, and that language carries the stories to us from our cultures, families, and the movements we are part of. By Demme showing us the suffering of Buffalo Bill and the final shards of his ability to empathize, we see the capacity for our own violence. By imagining Pecola as a victim not just of her individual abusers, but of a whole social system, we are confronted with our own ability to, and responsibility to, intervene.
From the beginning of The Bluest Eye, Claudia fixates on the outdoors, on being homeless, as being “the real terror of life,” that the “outdoors was the end of something, an irrevocable, physical fact, defining and complementing our metaphysical condition.” The outdoors exists as a space beyond the reach of the community. To be outdoors is to be cast as subhuman, “an Other,” to be made entirely vulnerable to violence. Claudia is fearful of ending up “outdoors” as she’s seen the violent consequence of this with the trajectory of Pecola’s life. “Knowing that there was such a thing as outdoors bred in us a hunger for property, for ownership,” Claudia reveals. This impulse to own in the face of loss might reveal that the impulse to dominate is self-protective for those who fear violence may be enacted on their body without consequence.
But again, the outdoors exists as a juxtaposition to the interiority of a community. The very structure of The Bluest Eye explores both the fracturing and possible wholeness of the community that Claudia and Pecola inhabit, collecting narratives and stories of members of the neighborhood system and illuminating the way their histories entwine. This craft choice allows for a more global view of the world. Claudia believes that it may have been her fault that the flowers, which represent Pecola to her, didn’t bloom because she did “not plant the seeds too deeply, how it was the fault of the earth, the land, of our town. I even think now that the land of the entire country was hostile to marigold that year.”
To isolate “the entire country” as a possible source for a flower, or a person, not blooming may be Morrison’s way of pointing to the entire country for being responsible for the ruin of a singular life; “the soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers…certain fruit it will not bear.” By condemning the whole for the destruction of one, a life that had not been recognized as fully human, the novel speaks to the concerns of posthumanism and suggests an ecocentric, rather than anthropocentric, frame for seeing the world. If we are to follow this conceptualization, perhaps we can use different words. Instead of “it,” give a name. Resist the other as separate. See those who are not you as fully alive. Challenge yourself to consider what system you use to organize the world and how those with despotic imaginations attempt to use naming to separate us from each other. As Joseph Campbell says of the poetic imagination, we live and imagine our lives in accordance with “a vocabulary in the form not of words, but acts.”
As artists, exposing the cultural, linguistic, and cognitive forces that permit violences seems essential—otherwise, systemic violence continues uninterrupted. What more difficult cog is there to replace than one in the machine of a bureaucracy? A government? A deeply ingrained thought structure? This is why attention to language—the sensation of language, how we order, how we decide on which point-of-view to use in storytelling matters deeply. As writers, we can not only erase old social orders and hierarchies, but we can suggest the new. Though there is difference between us all, it is crucial to also see how the idea of the total other is always false.
JULIANA ROTH is a writer from Nyack, NY. Currently, she lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Rutgers University. A 2018 nominee for Sundress Publication’s Best of the Net Anthology, her writing has appeared in Entropy, Irish Pages, The Atticus Review, The Establishment, among other publications.