A Clockwork Orange and
the Aestheticization of Violence

by Alexander Cohen

Download the accompanying film clip (QuickTime, 1.05M)

For Walter Benjamin, the defining characteristic of modernity was mass assembly and production of commodities, concomitant with this transformation of production is the destruction of tradition and the mode of experience which depends upon that tradition. While the destruction of tradition means the destruction of authenticity, of the originary, in that it also collapses the distance between art and the masses it makes possible the liberation which capitalism both obscures and opposes. While commodity fetishism represents the alienation away from use-value and towards exchange-value, leading to the assembly line construction of the same--as we see relentlessly analyzed by Horkheimer and Adorno in their essay The Culture Industry. Benjamin believes that with the destruction of tradition, libratory potentialities are nonetheless created. The process of the destruction of aura through mass reproduction brings about the "destruction of traditional modes of experience through shock," in response new forms of experience are created which attempt to cope with that shock.

"Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existenceThe authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning" when substantive duration ceases to matter, he says, the authority of the object is threatened. (Think, for example of Alex's response to high art...) "technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training. There came a day when a new and urgent need for stimuli was met by the film. In a film, perception in the form of shocks was established as a formal principle. That which determines the rhythm of production on a conveyor belt is the basis of the rhythm of reception in a film." (Motifs in Baudelaire)

Benjamin distinguishes between two kinds of experience: Erfahrung something integrated as experience, and Erlebnis, something merely lived through. Erlebnis characterizes the modern age and refers to the inability to integrate oneself and the world via experience. Erlebnis, then, is the form of experience of late capitalism, and our relation to commodities is characterized by ahistoricity, repetition, sameness, reactiveness, all the categories which the Culture Industry will describe as liquidating culture in the present post-holocaust era.

"The desire of the contemporary masses to bring things 'closer' spatially and humanlyis just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction."

The fact of this desire for the reproduction over and above the original is precisely what Horkheimer and Adorno believe is destroying culture, for contrary to Benjamin, Horkheimer and Adorno assert that any emancipatory possibilities are re-absorbed into capitalism, and fascism turns out to be the midget in the Chess-playing machine of capitalist oriented democracy. They set out, like Poe in his article "Maelzel's chess player," to show that capitalism has a hidden motor and it is none other than fascism.

Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" provides us with an outline of the history of the work of art and the historical changes which have led to the transformation of experience from Erfahrung to Erlebnis. It is only in the post-modern or so called post-industrial age that the concept of autonomy handed down to us from Kant, among others, begins to reveal it ideological nature. Benjamin's analysis of autonomous art not only destroys our notions of the wholistic work, but also dispels the illusion of the artist as transcendental creator. Let us look for a moment at his comparison of the painter to the cameraman.

"The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain. That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law. Thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art.' (Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, p. 230)

Benjamin informs us that the surgeon and cameraman share in common the apparent act of penetrating into the web of reality to come up with fragments assembled under "new laws," something which neither the magician nor the painter are capable of doing. The magician and the painter refer to a wholistic totalizing representation of reality. They are the producers of what has become a fetishized autonomous work. By way of contrast the figures of the surgeon and cameraman, and nowadays the cybernetician or genetic engineer plunge into reality itself and reassemble it from the bottom up. Along with the global controller who is responsible for the behavior of every part, any possible way of understanding the whole from these reassembled fragments is impossible. The maker vanishes at the moment reality is reassembled. "Art escapes the gravitational pull of ritual and aura by virtue of its thoroughgoing technization of representation and, importantly, the complementary technization of perception itself. Other modes of representation allow their equipmentality, the residue of their technique to remain strictly visible, whereas film, by virtue of its extreme technization makes the technical aspects invisible. Film provides the illusion of a more direct apprehension of reality." Distraction replaces concentration.

"Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than to the naked eye if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk one knows nothing of a person's posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for alight or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what has really gone on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses." (236-237)

As mechanically mediated dreams, film and photography and now Virtual Reality are all about the interpenetration of human and image with equipment; the trajectory of futurism, the dreamt of metallization of the body is completed in our own era where it will be impossible to know whether one is experiencing reality or VR. "The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology." (233) Individuality itself breaks down and the individual viewer becomes equivalent to mass culture through mass reproduction. The destruction of uniqueness renders even the western metaphysical subject obsolete...it is this obsolescence of the unique which is reflected in our own culture of commodity obsolescence. Horkheimer and Adorno (p. 126) rail against the emancipatory imagery of Benjamin, for "real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies" (p. 126). For Horkheimer and Adorno this means a "stunting of the mass-media consumer's powers of imagination and spontaneity" although as Benjamin asserts "quickness, powers of observation, and experience are undeniably needed to apprehend [film] at all." Horkheimer and Adorno show that nevertheless "sustained thought is out of the question if the spectator is not miss the relentless rush of facts. Even though the effort required for his response is semi-automatic, no scope is left for the imagination. Those who are so absorbed by the world of the movieby its images, gestures, and wordsthat they are unable to supply what really makes it a world, do not have to dwell on particular points of its mechanics during a screening."(127) "The culture industry as a whole has molded men as a type unfailingly reproduced in every product. (127)"

Clockwork Orange, is a film which analyses this process, "film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality" this is the conditioning process which is 'chosen' by Alex, his formally astute powers of observation are perverted in the forced viewing of films (see the image at the header of this article) so that he equates violence, and the capacity to respond to violence with an 'unconscious' linking to a feeling of death.

Because the apparatus presents not a world to explore, but a screen upon which images are projected, Alex, like a prisoner in Plato's cave, is afflicted, willingly/unwillingly, with a type of motor paralysis which makes the reality test impractical him. He is reduced to a subject remotely controlled by the cinematic apparatus and science. That this is perceived pleasurably for the mass audience might be linked to a regression to a state of infant-like passivity. As passive subjects, the camera's eye becomes our eye, and it's distortions become, possibly, the truth. It is not his mind but his body which learns this connection. (Disk1B, 5, 27:40 -- references are to the Criterion Laserdisk Edition) Here, that chosen passivity is revealed to be what it denies, Alex like us, is a willing victim. The treatment becomes a punishment because music, the image of high culture is perverted by coming into contact with the treatment. Beethoven's 9th Symphony is perverted (Disk1B chapter 5 29:25) by coming in contact with it's scientific use in a conditioning treatment.

The ninth above all in Beethoven's work represents his attempt to find a universally acceptable message. The first movement reflects the 'desperate condition' of mankind and alludes to Tartarus (the place where the worst offenders would go in Hell) as a symbol, the second movement depicts the search for happiness with diversions, and the third movement emotes piety a turning towards religion. The finale, in recounting all that has gone before arrives at fulfillment. This is precisely the organization which Kubrick creates for his film. We see a reverse of the development of society, we move from a universal dystopia, toward an individual fulfillment, universal in the everyman. That this fulfillment is only for the individual and not for the masses is one of the driving forces of the film.

Now, Horkheimer and Adorno never really move away from endorsing high culture (rather than a breakdown in individuality and autonomy, they seem to want its re-incorporation, probably the result of failing to be willing to really give up the enlightenment project) Alex with his ultra-violence represents the breakdown of culture itself (for example the opening scene with the bum) Alex understands the post-industrial society, he is both a product of it, and a means for its further production. Seeking idle de-contextualized violence as entertainment becomes a means of extremely temporary control, fulfillment, and emancipation from the horrors of a dystopian society in the throws of cancerous emptying of meaning.

The bum says in first scene: "The problem is there is no law and order, there are men on the moon and circling the earth, but there is no care taken here below."

--Technology has progressed but left the earth behind, no morality, no ethics... The old have failed to adapt to the changes; the violence of modern technology sees its reflection in Ultraviolence, beyond violence. Labor in this age is no longer that of production, but of destruction without purpose, violence without a referent. Thus we see Dim's statement after the first ultraviolence (chapter 4 opening): "We've been working hard too." It is the expenditure of energy for its own sake. Labor in the Post-industrial age.

In moving beyond mere violence, toward ultra-violence, Alex has incorporated and mastered the post-industrial age. As a post-modern pastiche of learnedness and stupidity, he is the inside-out reflection of the enlightenment subject. His language is the comprised of odd bits of rhyming slang "a bit of gypsy talk, too, but most of the roots are slavic. Propaganda. Subliminal penetration" (from the book.) A clockwork orange, in the words of the Author within the book: "A Clockwork Orange: the attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen."

I'd like to turn now to a very fascinating scene, the turning point of the film as it were, when he murders the Cat Lady....[refer to the accompanying clip...]

One will notice that the room abounds in modern art which depict scenes of sexual intensity and bondage. The Cat Women is the only real force of resistance to Alex, and the scene presents us with a struggle between high-culture which has aestheticized violence and sex into a form of autonomous art, and the very image of post-modern mastery, Alex, who understands all to well the meaning which is obscured from the Cat Women. She inhabits a private sphere, the image of enlightenment individuality (cat women are always introverts who are obsessively non-social) in a sort of delusional satellite from the city where it is all hoodlums. (Note the inversion of the polis...Alex brings the horror of the cities into the suburbs--Cyberbia). Denied the historical context of Art (the ninth is 'misunderstood') he actually understands the meaning of modern art very well indeed as violence, in fact he turns it literally into the tools of violence, she is killed, as it were by her own instruments of aesthetic decontextualization. The sculpture phallus (a "very important piece of art," ritualized and de-politicized) is made into a weapon, and the scene of her death is a nearly subliminal orgy of modern-art. --If you have downloaded the QuickTime clip, try single framing through the end of the clip, you will see that Kubrick has spliced in one to two frame images of parts of the paintings in the room which depict bondage and dismembered body parts.

Whereas she, as with the use of all high-art among the Bourgeoisie, finds only exchange value in the phallus, phallus as pure sign, Alex initiates the violent reversal of that commodification. He turns it into a tool, here a tool of violence; what she has done is to inject exhibition value into forms of art which have only exchange value, the work of art in the hands of the Bourgeoisie is reinjected with a type of aura, which only lead it further in the direction of losing control (like the reinjection of aura in the robot --Maria's aura--in Metropolis). Control is lost and the phallus becomes a weapon, a violent recontextualization by Alex. He proves to understand well this process. There are also similarities here with the State's control of his mind through conditioning. The state attempts to gain control by turning Alex into a robot (a clockwork orange), thus commodifying him (isn't this the struggle at the end for control of Alex--the liberals and state?). His use-value is a function of his exchange-value.

Copyright ©1995 Alexander J. Cohen, All Rights Reserved,
Redistribution for profit prohibited (copies must include this notice).