Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Placing Violence, Embodying Grace: Flannery O'Connor's "Displaced Person."

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Placing Violence, Embodying Grace: Flannery O'Connor's "Displaced Person."

Article excerpt

Several years ago, Slavoj Zizek, considering the notion that "we live in a post-ideological society," proposed instead a redefinition of ideology. The most elementary definition, he suggests, is a phrase from Marx's Capital: "Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es" ("they do not know it, but they are doing it"). In place of this definition, he invokes Peter Sloterdijk's Critique of Cynical Reason and the following formulation of cynical ideology: "they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it" (Zizek 28-29). News coverage of massacres in Bosnia and other places makes the cynicism of contemporary ideology especially vivid. With images of violence and disaster wired into most American homes, it is difficult to claim that one does not know what is going on--across the world or down the street. In some ways, however the very extent of available information seems to disable action. In the words of Terence des Pres, "[t]hanks to the technological expansion of consciousness, we cannot not know the extent of political torment; and in truth it may be said that what others suffer, we behold" (qtd. in Hartman 29). In a world where all points are equidistant from the TV viewer, all points can seem equally far away. Suffering is everywhere but in the "I" of the beholder.

In this essay, I want to explore the relationship between vision and violence, what is suffered and what beheld, in Flannery O'Connor's short story, "The Displaced Person." The story is structured around, a newsreel image of the Holocaust--the momentarily frozen picture of a room piled high with bodies--and concerns itself both with the attempt to make sense of that vision and with the proliferation of violence that image seems to produce. I will argue that the technology of O'Connor's storytelling offers a (still violent) alternative to the violent technology of images the story explicitly thematizes.

Two quite different essays by Walter Benjamin may help to frame the kinds of technology at work in "The Displaced Person." "The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction" presents film as one modern point of intersection between technology and art. The essay describes film as the art of distraction, altering the "apperceptive apparatus" of modern people, helping them adapt to the changing demands of a newly technical world. "The film is the art form that is in keeping with the increased threat to his life which modern man has to face.... The film corresponds to profound changes in the apperceptive apparatus--changes that are experienced on an individual scale by the man in the street in big-city traffic, on a historical scale by every present-day citizen" (250). Benjamin suggests that people learn to take in and respond to the massive increase in information signals by being exposed to the perceptual techniques of film. Contemplation of paintings gives way in film to a process of tactile appropriation, the kind of process performed by the user of a building: the structure is not contemplated from afar, but appropriated through use, through contact. The contemplation of a painting suggests perception at a distance, while the experience Benjamin wants to capture is a kind of negative distance, a remotely shocking innovation of the self. Time, tide and film wait for no one. "No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested. `I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images'" (238). In the process of tactile appropriation, the subject as well as the image may be appropriated. The film constructs the viewer.

Benjamin insists on seeing film as a cure or solution to the increasing shocks that modern flesh is heir to. Yet the imagery of healing is itself somewhat shocking in this text. The critic offers an analogy in which a magician represents the work of a painting; a surgeon, the work of a film:

The magician heals a sick person by the laying on of hands; the

surgeon cuts into the patient's body. …

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