Chaste Cinematics by Victor J. Vitanza. New York: Punctum Books, 2015.
(Published May 9, 2017)
To give a straightforward synopsis and review of Victor J. Vitanza’s Chaste Cinematics is rather challenging. Not only could the many films and philosophical concepts he introduces use glosses of their own, the difficulties are further compounded when one realizes that Chaste Cinematics is connected to an earlier monograph, Negation, Subjectivity, and The History of Rhetoric (NSHR), and sequel to a more recent companion volume, Sexual Violence in Western Thought and Writing: Chaste Rape (Chaste Rape). Add Vitanza’s provocative assertion that this “is not just one more film- or cinema-studies book” but a “stumbling—syncopating—giggling—book” to be engaged in the way DVD “extras” are watched (xxiii), and the task slips ever further from grasp. Our objective here, of course, is to review the third book in the trilogy, and we will do so, but given the complex and experimental nature of Vitanza’s work, it’s first helpful to briefly understand the broader context to which it contributes.
Put as succinctly as possible, Vitanza is concerned with rape and sexual violence—perhaps one of his most enduring concerns. He sees various rape narratives as foundational to Western culture, not only in terms of how these narratives are evident in Panhellenic, Roman, and Western European rhetorical traditions (NSHR), but also in how they continue to ripple through philosophy, psychology, and literature, (Chaste Rape) as well as film and cinema (Chaste Cinematics). One theme of Vitanza’s trilogy, particularly in the latter two volumes, is that sexual violence (i.e., rape/assault/harassment/torture) “in some incipient, pathological way contributes to legitimacy” (Chaste Cinematics xvii). As he demonstrates throughout the trilogy, sexual violence comprises a powerful justifying function, which countenances reaction, revenge, and violent purification; but “profane” reactionary violence in response to an originary act of sexual violence, in turn, subtends the “sacred” virtues of community-building, shared meaning-making, and cultural cohesion. In other words, according to Vitanza victims of rape and sexual violence are culturally sacrificed (to say nothing of being physically, emotionally, and legally sacrificed) for the development and overall good of the community. Rape establishes community (xvin6).
By identifying the thematics of rape/sexual violence in Western culture’s most consumed texts, Vitanza seeks to overturn these narratives by first enlarging the scope of their influence (by way of Leibniz’s compossible/incompossible multiverse) and then entangling and denegating these stories (by “extracting death” from them). “I am turning and refolding the problem of rape over and over against itself, by way of unlikely perspectives,” he writes. “In hopes of discovering less the cause [of sexual violence] but more so remedies” (xxii). In Chaste Cinematics, Vitanza wants to extend his thinking about sexual violence from his previous books to look at rape in cinema, particularly as it is depicted in fictional and documentary films. In the process, Vitanza seeks to move himself and his readers beyond gut-level reactionary vengeance in order to render the ultimate destinies of rape narratives, in his words, reversible.
In order to achieve this objective, Vitanza studies a series of films across a variety of genres by way of assorted DVD extras—short cuts, outtakes, director’s interviews, extras, and Easter eggs, among others—with the twin goals of showing both how cinema represents rape chastely (invoking rape to justify community-building) and how cinematic rape narratives might be re-mediated, re-cut, or re-versed. In particular he sets out to cut, splice, and fold the films back on themselves in order to reimagine, through subtle permutations and recombinations, a series of “incompossible worlds”—countless co-extensive worlds with different invented actions and outcomes—where rape is not the ur-story that somehow warrants Western culture.
All of the films Vitanza studies—there are many—engage in what he calls a sacrificial economy. The directors, screenwriters, and editors he studies depict rape in various degrees of explicitness in order to countenance community-building by way of revenge. Some of the films include subtle implications of rape (including Shaffer and Forman’s Amadeus); others refer directly to rape without depicting it (including Hartley’s Henry Fool and Nolan’s Memento); and still others depict rape graphically (including Waters’ Multiple Maniacs, Sander’s Liberators Take Liberties, and Strosser’s Rape Stories). The ostensible reasons for these rape narratives vary wildly, but Vitanza ranges across these various kinds of films to consider the persistent rhetorical work of cinematic rape narratives, which he contends validate violence, exclusion, and even murder. For Vitanza, rape “leads to an endless cycle of revenge that never ends and only escalates to mass rape as a permanent way of dying” (102n25). In working through this perspective throughout the book, Vitanza repeatedly reminds us that the validation of violence is routinely cast in the “positive” terms of community building. “We” have to avenge “our” women, or “our” spouses, or even “our” soldiers who are victims of sexual violence by “ourselves” resorting to violence to feel whole/connected again—rational thought it may at first seem, ultimately, “we” valorize the kind of communion that depends on a sacrifice.
If, in NSHR, Vitanza offers a controversial reading of the Sophists in counter-distinction to such influential historians as Edward Schiappa, John Poulakos, and Susan Jarratt, in Chaste Cinematics, Vitanza tackles fictional and documentary rapes by filmmakers like Gaspar Noé, Helke Sanders, and John Waters. Indeed, in each of the films he studies Vitanza extracts specific moments for closer inspection, from which he schematizes chaste cinematics—or the exchange of rape narratives for the salvation of community. In each case, he shows his willingness to subvert, collide with, and cut across venerated filmmakers—sometimes through staged interviews/reenactments (“polylogues”) with directors, movie characters, and/or philosophers—to draw out the chastity of cinematic rape(s). That Vitanza sees all of his efforts working through these themes is forecast in a footnote in NSHR where he looks ahead to his then working title for these polylogic efforts, The History of Rhetoric, Canonicity, and Rape Narratives (363n3).
In Chaste Cinematics, to perform these in(tro)spections, he cuts, re-cuts, and re-members the logics of the rape narratives to introduce subtle changes and re-combinations as a way of unsettling rape as an originary trauma used to rationalize (future) redemption. As Vitanza cuts across and among the films, directors, and screenwriters, he performs his characteristically heretical analysis by way of “disrupting chronological flow” and practicing “polymorphous-perverse arts” (xviii). A significant portion of this book is footnotes, which he suggests are akin to production notes and storyboards. And Vitanza’s vernacular virtuosity is perpetual in this book as he tries to work through the central problematic of rape. But just as daunting as the effort to avoid falling into the endless cross-references and footnotes that exemplify Vitanza’s highly allusive style, is the sense that Vitanza, too, is taking great care to lead readers as straightforwardly as possible, at least at the level of synopsis, when it comes to engaging difficult and sometimes hard-to-find films and philosophical concepts. At times, Vitanza concedes the difficulty of his own project, such as when he makes the following admission and solution concerning Helke Sanders’s film, Liberators Take Liberties: War, Rapes, Children: “Because the film at this writing is still not easily available… I will provide a more full account of the film than would usually be expected” (70).
Nevertheless, Vitanza’s effort to guide readers is not always easy. He seems to sense that some of his analyses may even draw reproach from readers for not treating the subject of rape/sexual violence with the seriousness it deserves. One of the more confounding chapters—or DVD-style extras menu—is a series of questions at the end of the book that he asks his readers to confront regarding his earlier chapters. Vitanza posits himself in third person and tells the reader to “not worry about being a promiscuous reader” and that if they aren’t satisfied with what “Vitanza values” that they might make their own index and “send it to Vitanza” (188). If this comes across as adversarial, it is because Vitanza’s questions seem to attempt to pre-emptively disarm readers in the style of Plato’s dialogues: “Is he [Vitanza] not pretentious in speaking for others, even if he knows them and they, him? You might want to examine the etymology of the word ‘pretentious.’ If you have read Plato’s Socratic dialogues, you have read imaginary works. There is no sympathy here for the difference between real and fictive” (188). One suspects Vitanza is trying to anticipate critiques, but perhaps we can simply say it is jarring to grapple with a central thesis about the preponderance of rape narratives and still have the feeling of being pre-emptively regarded as “promiscuous.”
But we must recall again, Chaste Cinematics is part of a larger body of work, which helps shed some light on Vitanza’s method(s). In NSHR, Vitanza first suggested that denegation can only be achieved through “massive deconcentrations, campy writing” (16). Now, in Chaste Cinematics, we can see that the “campy writing” upon which Vitanza’s work depends and which it extends as a method, is not idly self-satirical, but quite serious in its linkage to Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of a “community without community” and Giorgio Agamben’s discussion of the Muselmann of Nazi concentration camps. Campy? Yes, but it’s not the sort of campiness that people usually associate with humor. It is campiness toward experimentation toward new ways of thinking/reading/writing/filming that aren’t sacrificial in their economy. We think it is fair to say that some of Vitanza’s efforts are more successful than others in charting new experimental spaces, folds, and re-versions, but—to (re)mix our metaphors—all of them at the very least invite provocative re-visions, re-cuts, and re-mediations from readers.
In the end, Chaste Cinematics does not (and should not, given the purpose and subject) invite casual reading. It is a challenging text that demands sustained attention and study from its readers and pushes readers back again to parts one (NSHR) and two (Chaste Rape) of the trilogy, which are also—equally—maybe even more so—demanding. Given that Vitanza already plans a fourth book (and film!) entitled Design as Dasein, one can begin to understand why it’s so daunting to dive into, as Vitanza puts, “a place that ‘we’ could abandon ourselves to in dis/order to listen and think. The limit” (Chaste Cinematics 67). Nevertheless, we think it is an important dive, and one that needs to be taken and retaken and retaken again.
Vitanza, Victor J. 1997. Negation Subjectivity, and The History of Rhetoric. Albany: SUNY Press.
Vitanza, Victor J. 2011. Sexual Violence in Western Thought and Culture: Chaste Rape. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.