Picture Crimes


Benny’s Video, Michael Haneke, 1992

by Masha Tupitsyn

Last week I emailed Laurie Penny’s article “Steubenville: This is rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment” to my mother. We talked about it. She called it “sexual fascism.” She always has the right words. I asked her how it is possible to raise human beings who are capable of things like this. I use the word “human” loosely here. Human, first and foremost, may not even be the point, as evidenced by the media’s and the public’s response to the rape. Immediately after their conviction, CNN’s Poppy Harlow described Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond as, “two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students.”

In America, we aim to raise children who can do things — anything — not children who can’t. Ruthless competition and competence is at the heart of the American dream. However, when it comes to contemporary America, and contemporary American masculinity in particular, what exactly does it mean to be capable of “anything” now? What cannot and should not be done is no longer clear (if it was ever clear) or even applicable to the question of what constitutes humaneness. Success and humanity seem to run on different tracks.

So who is missing what? Who is not seeing what? Not going to college should undoubtedly be the least of Mays’ and Richmond’s problems, and yet for most people reacting to this case, this is the real tragedy. We should instead be asking ourselves: is being a good student more important than being a good person? Is being a good student or athlete synonymous with moral probity? And does morality lie solely in what we are willing to do and not at all in what we refuse to do (note: in order to stay in the game of life and the game of reality TV, which is also the game of life, you must be willing to do everything you are asked to do)? As the experimental New York City performance artist, Penny Arcade recently put it, “the only real success is being human.”

My mom writes back: “Parents don’t raise children anymore. Computers and media raise them.” If we know that family is not always or simply biology, but the people who take care of us, then the amount of time we spend with computers and images — away from people — plays a profound role in socialization and desocialization. And how can it not? As an avid life-long reader (during my world travels at 18, 19, 20, and 21, I would sometimes read for up to 12 hours a day) I’ve noticed my own ability to concentrate when reading start to wane due to the increasing role social media plays in my own life. This reminds me of what feminist scholars Susan Bordo and bell hooks say about the way American media has become the primary pedagogy in people’s lives. Bordo writes: “We live in an empire ruled not by kings or even presidents, but images.” Linda Stupart refers to the misogyny of this image empire as “killing women through media” (echoing Michael Nodianos’ disgusting celebratory video rant about how “dead” “Jane Doe” looked while she was being raped) in her article, “Woman Object Corpse”. “However, it has yet to be discussed,” Stupart notes, “exactly how this very particular objectification fits into a chain of subject to object, women to corpse (un)becomings in a horrifying set of assumed complicities, participations and consents…These pictures of the corpses of women turn women into images, images into corpses, women into death.”

Images and cyber culture as a whole, as Laurie Penny points out in her article, play a key role in the Steubenville atrocity of becoming and (un)becoming. It’s possible that images go so far as to even motivate crimes now. That it motivated this one. Many people’s lives are now centered on finding things to film. How can we create events and lives that are camera worthy? How can we find something/someone to capture and record (capture bodies, but also capture visual records of those bodies in whatever form we can capture them)? Michael Haneke’s disturbing film Benny’s Video comes to mind here as both the film and the Steubenville rape not only reflect the rise of experiencing crime as entertainment, or committing crimes to make entertainment, but the banalization of torture in everyday life. Further, in order for rape to be experienced as entertainment, a culture of rape and a precedent for the public enjoyment and consumption of rape have to be in place. Without rape culture, and ratings for rape culture, there would be no reason to think that images of rape in everyday life would have a built-in audience.

Entertainment is simply not enough anymore. We want to make our own spectacles, and we want to up their ante and their dosage. But an empire of images paradoxically means that because images are everywhere we take images lightly. Despite their ubiquity, we no longer believe in images or take them seriously. We don’t see them as proof or evidence, which makes it easy for them to proliferate irresponsibly and indiscriminately. Images have become so banal that in creating incriminating evidence against themselves that Mays and Richmond didn’t even see the pictures they took of their rape victim as evidence.

When there is an accident or altercation on the street, most people pull out their camera phones to record the incident instead of intervening. The desire to photograph the proverbial car wreck has replaced the desire to watch the car wreck. The camera looks and feels/doesn’t feel for us. The camera has not only replaced our eyes, it has replaced our central nervous system. React = record. So when it came time for Mays and Richmond to apologize for their crimes in court, their remorse rested with images. They were repentant not for what they did, but for showing what they did. While Richmond got up to apologize to the family of the rape victim, and broke into tears, the real and only crime for Mays was that he took pictures of it. Mays: “No pictures should have been spread around, let alone been taken.” This sounds like the kind of vague and impersonal memo one would receive from Human Resources.

But if images are how we live and what we live for now (to be in them, to look and act like them, to amount to them); if images are how we keep track of our lives — how our lives add up in the electronic files we’ve made for and of them — then it makes sense to regret the act of image-making/taking, not the act of taking lives. When we get caught red-handed, images ruin our lives, not the lives of others. Crimes in and of themselves are no longer sufficient. Who needs a plain old crime now? Crimes need endorsement, distribution, crowds. Crimes need digital trails: RSS feeds, hyperlinks. Places to go — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, SMS. Crimes need to be passed around in school hallways and on online wall posts. Crimes have no shame anymore. Crimes go viral. They roam. Brecht said, “As crimes pile up, they become invisible.” But today, crimes aggregate rather than pile up, and are not necessarily visible despite being everywhere. Maybe being everywhere actually does the opposite of uncovering — maybe it hides. In a 2008 essay, “Screen to Screen,” I wrote:

In an essay in Bookforum called ‘Nikons and Icons,’ David Levi Strauss writes: ‘Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites rightly point to the larger problem identified by Peter Sloterdijk that modernity has entered into a terminal phase of ‘enlightened self-consciousness’ whereby all forms of power have been unmasked with no change in behavior;’ This recalls Brecht’s, ‘As crimes pile up, they become invisible,’ Jacques Derrida’s, ‘In this century, monstrous crimes (‘unforgiveable’ then) have not only be committed—which is perhaps itself not so new—but have become visible, known, recounted, named, archived by a ‘universal conscience’ better informed than ever,’ and, The Master and The Margarita’s, ‘Maestro Woland is a great master of the technique of tricks, as we shall see from the most interesting part, namely, the exposure of this technique and since we are all unanimously both for technique and for its unmasking, we shall ask Mr. Woland.’ To those unfamiliar with Mikhail Bulgakov’s great Russian novel, Mr. Woland is the Devil and shows up in Moscow. In exchange for studying what each fraudulent cell looks like under a merciless commercial and commodified lens, viewers enable late-capitalism to run more smoothly by calling in with their votes, as is the case with Reality TV. From the inside, secrecy appears eradicated, as though secrets comprise the totality of injustice rather than just one part. Justice is reduced to a vantage point. To simply seeing or hearing something. We see and we see and we see ad infinitum.

Remember that this is an age that knows nothing of privacy, silence, restraint or justice. Rape is just more reality TV and simulacra. If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it…If we rape a girl and it’s not caught on tape…The sexualization of screens in movies like Videodrome, Benny’s Video, Crash and Tesis turns into screens as sexuality with social media. As Henry Rollins put it in his blog response to Steubenville, “perhaps just don’t take the fuckin picture?” And that’s how Mays and Richmond feel. Except, while Rollins is referring to the way we use media images to surveil, shame and humiliate women on a daily basis, Mays and Richmond wish they’d just been satisfied with humiliation itself; with the private acts of torture and degradation that they committed and performed for a select public, without needing to leak it out to everyone. Instead, like a nightmare that literally never goes away, they wanted copies of the rape. They wanted the rape on repeat, recalling Benny with his remote control, obsessively freeze-framing, slowing down, and rewinding; playing the same violent image over and over on his television screen. In Haneke’s film, it is crucial that Benny reproduce his own version of the home video pig slaughter while not being able to comprehend the difference between the recorded image and real death. A weapon and a toy. Murder and play. Girl and pig. But most haunting is the terrible parallel between everyone seeing what happened to “Jane Doe” but Jane Doe herself. Just as she was reportedly unconscious during the rape, Doe was unaware that the videos and pictures of the rape were being sent around.

And what role does race and racism play in all of this? The rape victim, a black girl, collectively degraded and violated in ways that recall not just Abu Grahib, but our worst instances and images of African-American slavery and white supremacy. Jane Doe is a black girl in the predominately white city of Steubenville. Mays, a white boy, shows no remorse. Richmond, a black boy, does. Was it easier not only to dehumanize a black girl, but to get away with dehumanizing her? Would someone have cared or intervened in the rape if Jane Doe had been white? And finally, were there other girls present at these parties or was Doe the only one? If so, why was she the only girl in the midst of all these boys? Are women safer when they are around other women? I want to believe they are. But according to movies like the Witches of Eastwick (1987) and Spring Breakers (2013), female collectives can be undermined and disbanded even by one man, proving that strength is not always in numbers.

In Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, film scholar Laura Mulvey distinguishes the meditative, pensive spectator, who extracts and studies the film fragment in order to place it back into its original context with “extra understand­ing,” from the more fetishistic and possessive spectator, who with the availability of digital media isolates the film fragment or image from continuity and context in order to gratuitously fetishize it. Through repetition and return, the critic’s disruption of narrative flow can at least allow them to find the image inside the image, the film behind the film; to unearth the hidden politic of meaning. But the boys of Steubenville wanted to turn the rape that went on all night on August 11, 2012 into a meme; a viral copy that went on forever. The rape extended into an endless “presentism,” to use media theorist’s Douglas Rushkoff’s term. I have a terrible feeling that a meme is exactly what rape is on its way to becoming in the digital age. And that is why metaphysics and ethics today rest not with being, or what it means to be. But with the being or not-being, the taking or not taking, of pictures, which not only allow us to see the unimaginable, and to do the unimaginable, but to revel in the unimaginable we have done. In the case of Steubenville, and many other rape cases like it, what could and should never be reproduced was reduced to mere reproduction. As Freud aptly put it: “It seems, as with dreams, we are revealed by what we screen.”

About the Author:

Masha Tupitsyn is a writer, cultural critic, and multi-media artist. She is the author of Love Dog (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film (ZerO Books, 2011), Beauty Talk & Monsters, a collection of film-based stories (Semiotext(e) Press, 2007), and co-editor of the anthology Life As We Show It: Writing on Film (City Lights, 2009). Her fiction and criticism has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies Women in Clothes (Penguin, 2014), The Force of What’s Possible (Nightboat Books, 2014), The American Tetralogy (Blackjack Editions, 2013), Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology (2012), The Encyclopedia Project Volume 2 (F-K) (2010) and Volume 3 (L-Z) (2014), and Wreckage of Reason: XXperimental Women Writers Writing in the 21st Century (Spuyten Duyvil, 2008), with additional works published by The White Review, The New Inquiry, Fence, Bookforum, The Rumpus, Boing Boing, Indiewire’s Press Play, Animal Shelter, the Shepparton Art Museum, and Ryberg Curated Video.