Violence, Emotion, Film: the work of Prof. Eugenie Brinkema

Photo of a man's face in a grimace of rage with a hand around the throat.

Violence! courtesy of Riccardo Cuppini on Flickr.

A guest blog post by OCW department liaison Luke Phelan:

Assistant Professor of Literature Eugenie Brinkema specializes in researching and teaching films and texts depicting extreme violence, cruelty, and brutality, in search of what these images can tell us about how and why we feel. As a recent MIT News story put it:

Brinkema suggests that cinematic light can give visual form to what she terms the “textual structure” of grief. From Hitchcock to the contemporary Austrian auteur Michael Haneke, she suggests, bright light powerfully displays “the disappearance of being and the raw affective state of death of the beloved” — a concept Brinkema also finds in the work of writers from Roland Barthes to Joan Didion.

What goes for grief, Brinkema argues, also applies to disgust, anxiety, and joy. Her new book, “The Forms of the Affects,” published by Duke University Press, analyzes how the formal vocabulary of film supplies emotional intensities, and also reviews similar ideas as they apply to famous works of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literature. Continue reading…

Brinkema brings these insights into the classroom, with courses like At the Limit: Violence in Contemporary Representation, newly published on MIT OpenCourseWare. An intermediate-level course, At the Limit challenges students to reflect on the ambiguities and ambivalence of cinematic violence, and the ways viewers are repulsed by the images they seek out. In her notes to the first lecture “A Brief History of Violence (PDF)” (the OCW course features complete, essay-like notes by Brinkema for each session), she asks:

Is violence something monstrous, abnormal, unusual, exceptional, different… or is violence, in fact, precisely something utterly, completely expected, ordinary, banal – Is it the very essence of the normal and normative? Is violence bound up with the failure of the family, or a commitment to the ideology of protecting and shoring up the family? Is violence something that the monstrous do, or is violence precisely the logical outcome of the most ordinary and normal course of events?

The course pushes students to move beyond strict binary thinking, and delve into the complexities of some of the most viscerally challenging pieces of contemporary film and literature. As Brinkema writes in a special note to her students on the course syllabus, “extreme texts…can also be funny or loving or gentle or moving, and you should attend to the positive affective side of this kind of material as well.” She goes on,

…violence catches us off guard. Be open to being surprised by your reactions: they may range from boredom and indifference to being bothered that you’re bothered by something seemingly trivial. Attend to the affective (i.e. emotional, physical, visceral) experience of reading and watching this material: it’s something that literary and film critics write and think about, and this semester, it’s one of many ways to approach the texts. In addition, I often find that when I think and write analytically and curiously about disturbing material, it produces a new, often surprising relationship to it, makes it possible to tarry with dark things.

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