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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 16 (April 1999)

Visible Violence: Sichtbare und verschleierte Gewalt im Film

(Visible and Hidden Violence in Contemporary Films).

Beiträge zum Symposium Film and Modernity:

Violence, Sacrifice and Religion, Graz 1997,

ed. Larcher, Gerhard, Grabner, Franz and

Wessely, Christian.

Beiträge zur mimetischen Theorie 10, 1998.

Pb 232. Münster: LIT, ISBN 3-8258-3756-4

(distributed by Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick/USA and London/UK);

Thaur: Druck- und Verlagshaus, ISBN 3-85400-075-8

In his book How to Read a Film, a classic of film theory and history, James Monaco points to the extraordinary "mimetic capacities" of the medium film. Whereas modern arts tend to increasing levels of (antimimetic) abstraction, mimesis, as imitation of reality, which Aristotle saw as the main subject of art, seems to become more and more the exclusive domain of film and television. According to the high level of daily presence of violence we should not be astonished that violence is one of the main topics in film and television today. But at the same time there is an amazing lack of serious literature reflecting this context of daily and virtual violence. Merely after "incomprehensible" and excessive acts of violence, especially when committed by juveniles or children like in the school shooting of Arkansas, there is a passionate, but short and fruitless debate about sources of violence, frequently supposing a strong and direct influence of violent movies.

The tenth volume of the German BMT series ("Contributions to the Mimetic Theory") is a selection (mainly in English) of contributions to the annual COV&R conference "Film and Modernity: Violence, Sacrifice and Religion" in Graz 1997. It can be understood as a first attempt to test the usefulness and productivity of the mimetic theory in the field of film critique. The meeting between a group of Girardians on the one hand and a group of film specialists and enthusiasts on the other hand offered an excellent oppurtinity for this experiment. G. Larcher starts the volume with a general reflection on film as an aesthetic and cultural project of modernity and its violent substructures. Based on films of Th. Angelopoulos ("Ullysses's Gaze") and E. Kustorica ("Underground") he goes further into the question of personal and historical identity as well as of reconciliation in the face of the Bosnian conflict. The article of R. Hamerton-Kelly outlines the historical background of this conflict and provides a mimetic interpretation emphasizing the specific role of religion.

M. Ross and B. Murauer look into the presentation of violence and the role of vengeance in films of A. Ferrara ("King of New York", "Bad Lieutenant", "The Addiction"), whereas P. Hasenberg exposes the religious dimension in Ferrara's Films, especially Ferrara's outlook for "pain and redemption" within his dark urban cosmos of extreme violence, sex, drugs and alcohol. H. Meindl and Ch. Suppan introduce the Austrian film director Michael Haneke and his "aesthetics of violence"; the intention of Hanekes films is to "give to violence back, what it is: pain, violation of others". The use of drastic filmic techniques to achieve this intention, especially in his film "Funny Games", led in Cannes as well as at the conference in Graz to very emotional reactions and discussions. Haneke himself presents in his article a general reflection on the relationship between violence and media. A. Duque touches this relationship in "Modern Film and the Crisis of Human Values" too, how-ever in a rather pessimistic view and not so close to film analysis than most of the other articles.

E. Arens, B. Neurathner and C. Ginther go into the topic of capital punishment, represented in films by T. Robbins ("Dead Man Walking") and Herz Frank ("The Last Judgement"). A. Bartlett, A. Heller, J. Pahl and Ch. Wessely on the other hand turn their attention to the presence of excessive violence and sacrificial structures in contemporary American mainstream cinema, exemplified by films like "Natural Born Killers" (O. Stone), "Pulp Fiction" (Qu. Tarantino) and "Halloween" (J. Carpenter). D. Culbertson covers the mechanisms of sacrificial expulsion and scapegoating in her analysis of "Au Revoir les Enfants" (L. Malle). The volume is completed by René Girards (so far unpublished) public lecture "Reconciliation, Violence and the Gospel" in the Schubert-cinema in Graz. Although the lecture, which was part of the Second European Ecumenical Assembly, does not examine directly the film topic, it fits well into this volume frequently referring to violence, mimetic rivalry and scapegoating; moreover Girards unique technique of reading texts may also contribute to find new techniques of "reading" films.

Christian Metz, another important film theorist, warns in his Essais sur la signification au cinéma that film as a simple art runs the permanent risk to fall victim to his simplicity: "A film is difficult to explain, since he is easy to understand." The images of violence, especially those of contemporary mainstream cinema, seem easy to understand, but they are likewise hard to explain. This volume is a good approach of how we may "read" the signs of violence in contemporary films, not least thanks to the mimetic theory.

Dietmar Regensburger, University of Innsbruck


Friday's Children: An Examination of Theologies of Martyrdom in the Light of the Mimetic Theory of René Girard.

by Michael Joseph Kirwan,

Heythrop College, University of London.

Doctor of Philosophy, 1998.

The thesis looks in detail at different understandings of the phenomenon and significance of Christian martyrdom, with a view to what is needed for an adequate doctrine of martyrdom for the present day. My primary methodological tool is the 'mimetic' theory associated with the cultural anthropologist René Girard, which looks at the interrelations between culture, religion and violence. I work, therefore, with two aims in view: firstly, an enhanced doctrine of martyrdom, and secondly, an assessment of the utility or otherwise of mimetic theory when applied to a particular area of Christian doctrine.

In a preliminary first chapter, I establish the theological context within which questions about martyrdom are to be raised, namely the doctrine of atonement. I provide a survey of recent reflection on the principal metaphors of atonement (victory over demonic powers, justice, sacrifice), and indicate how this approach may be of help in constructing a theology of martyrdom.

The second chapter offers a description and definition of Christian martyrdom by way of an extensive historical survey, drawing upon biblical, martyrological and patristic sources. I show how this 'classical' doctrine of martyrdom contains a number of problematic aspects. A discussion of twentieth-century reflections and reworkings of the theme of martyrdom reveals further complexities for an adequate doctrine. It is these aporias, I contend, which require a fresh theoretical approach- namely, that of mimetic theory- if an adequate doctrine is to be worked out.

Chapter Three introduces the mimetic theory associated with Girard and developed for systematic theology by the Swiss Jesuit, Raymund Schwager, and essays a critical assessment. I contend that mimetic theory opens up two methodological options for a reflection on martyrdom: a radical hermeneutic of suspicion, and the basis of a 'dramatic' theology.

On the basis of these two options, therefore, the discussion of the final fourth chapter addresses the aporias of the theology of martyrdom. I confirm here the abiding importance of martyrdom for systematic theology, while making explicit the criteria (drawn from mimetic theory and other sources) by which a non-pathological, 'authentic' theology of martyrdom may be affirmed.

The preceding discussions are illustrated by means of two Appendices, which look in more detail at selected scriptural passages (the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, the 'Servant Songs' of Second Isaiah) and early martyrological texts (Ignatius' Letter to the Romans, and the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitas).


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