Sunday, 27 February 2011
A Serbian Film and the Culture of Cruelty
(A Serbian Film)
On 16th February I co-presented a paper on the recent Serbian horror movie A Serbian Film with Beth Johnson, who lectures in English and Film at Keele. We presented the paper at the first monthly Keele cultural research seminar of 2011. The argument of our paper, ‘Ovo Je Srbija’, or This is Serbia, is that what A Serbian Film captures is the horror of the Milosevic years when Serbia was transformed into a kind of criminal state. In this respect we sought to root the cultural significance of A Serbian Film in a discussion of Serbian society. However, we also wanted to argue that A Serbian Film has significance beyond its immediate cultural context, and that in some ways it can be seen to illuminate fundamental human truths, such as those explained by Thomas Hobbes and Sigmund Freud, who both argued that human society is a kind of protective screen necessary to save us from ourselves.
In both Hobbes and Freud society is essential to save humans from themselves because we are essentially violent, sadistic, creatures who cannot be allowed to ever follow our natural inclinations. Hobbes sums up this natural inclination to violence in terms of a kind of ‘thirst for power’. He thought that humans are hard-wired to want to dominate each other and that the natural struggles between them can only ever be controlled by artificial social norms and values. Freud made a similar point in his classic essay, Civilization and its Discontents, but in his view what causes humans to tend towards violence is their fundamental death drive. Freud thought that we were all possessed by this death drive, or what he called thanatos, and that the aim of this destructive drive was the pursuit of peace and nothingness that we originally possess in utero.
The radical nature of Freud’s idea was, therefore, that we are all suicidal creatures who seek out violence and destruction because what we really desire is self-annihilation. Of course, we would not live very long if thanatos was everything and Freud was clear that the function of society, and eros, the life drive, was to defer the desire for death and project it into alternatives methods for expending life energy, such as consumer culture, addiction, and risk taking. I have already illustrated in an early post on the American war movie, The Hurt Locker, how this strategy works and I think that the idea that the recent American taste for war was in some ways an expression of the American death drive is a persuasive thesis. This is exactly what I argued in my paper on the American Death-Drive, which was published in the journal Fast Capitalism. In another paper, I also explored what the cultural studies writer Henry Giroux calls the American culture of cruelty.
However, what I think A Serbian Film illustrates is that the American death drive is just that, an American death drive, and that other nations, and other cultures also have similar thanatologies. The terrible abusive machine expressed in A Serbian Film is, therefore, a representation of the Serbian version of the death drive. But if this is the case, then, and there are multiple death drives, what we need is a kind of comparative cultural study of the death drive, which would say something about the differences between American torture porn movies such as Saw and an expression of the Serbian death drive such as A Serbian Film. The results of such a comparative study would be culturally significant because they could tell us about the ways different societies think about violence and destruction. In the above instance we may conclude that whereas A Serbian Film is essentially critical of the death drive and demonises the agents of violence, Saw moralises violence and seems to make it appear somehow necessary. The next move would then be to think about the cultural implications of such a conclusion for the societies in question. This is the kind of work we are looking to carry out in our future project on carnographic cultures, which will explore comparisons and contrasts between diverse cultures of cruelty.