The Hatred of Our Times
On December 19, 2016, a lone gunman shot the Russian ambassador to Turkey at an art exhibit in Ankara, the Turkish capital. Accompanying the breaking story by the New York Times was a striking photograph of the gunman. In the photo, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, a 22-year-old off-duty police officer, is sharply dressed in a black suit, standing over the body of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador. One hand clutches a handgun, and the other is poised in the air as if a lightning rod. “Do not forget Aleppo!” he shouts in the video footage of the incident, pacing near the fallen ambassador like a jungle predator.
It is this photo that has endured the subsequent explosion of media coverage of and political upheaval over the act, which was quickly denounced as an act of terrorism, though the gunman was linked with no known terrorist organizations. Indeed, the photographer who took it, Burhan Ozbilici, earned the 2017 World Press Photo of the Year Award for what award jurist Mary Calvert hailed as “an explosive image that really spoke to the hatred of our times.”
As with other photos of similar watershed moments in history, there is something electric about this image that not only haunts, but also titillates us. Separated from the moment at which the photo was taken by distance and time, many of us are probably less repelled by the plainly presented violence and hatred so much as we are magnetized. By what? Perhaps we are drawn by the promise of a glimpse into the sublimity of pure passion—by the promise of a dark mystery opening up, only to divulge a deeper mystery still.
Abjection and Voyeurism
Julia Kristeva calls this sensation “abjection,” a concept that goes beyond schadenfreude, sadism, and even catharsis in its primordiality and complexity. The abject, she writes in Powers of Horror, “draws [us] toward a place where meaning collapses.” When the abject—or that sensation that is too horrific for words, which can manifest in anything we find repellent, ranging from a glimpse of a cockroach to a photograph of a corpse—brings us to the boundaries of our own humanity, the structures of society that we believe to represent an ordered reality crumble away. This dissolution causes us to momentarily lose grasp of our distinction between ourselves as human beings and the “object,” or lifeless matter, The abject is, in short, an involuntary reaction to any terrible image or act that “disturbs identity, system, [and] order,” as well as “borders, positions, [and] rules.”
So why are we so drawn to images such as the World Press photo of the year, for all its upsetting qualities? For one, it can, somewhat ironically, make us somehow feel more alive through a process of catharsis. Susan Sontag discusses this notion as a kind of voyeurism in her essay Regarding the Pain of Others. She writes that “there is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up [photo] of a real horror,” that in only looking and not doing anything to alleviate horror, “[we] are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.” By taking on the role of a voyeur, separated by time and space from the act or aftermath depicted in an image, we become something of a victor—a survivor.
As Kristeva points out, this is a notion of catharsis that we inherited from Aristotle. Through a “mimesis of passions” during which we engage with the very emotions we wish to divest ourselves of, “[our] soul reaches orgy and purity at the same time.” Aristotle, however, did not go so far as to endorse this process in relation to the abject. If we mimic the passions of chaos and degradation wrought by abjection, Kristeva writes, we attempt to cleanse ourselves of the abject by locking ourselves in engagement with it. This is what we do on a regular basis when we give in to the fraction-of-a-second conflict of whether or not we should click on a link to a particularly lurid news story (like the one I’m currently writing about). We want to be revolted, moved, and “purified” by the abject all at once. The irrational, pre-ontological drive to do so is ingrained in all of us.
But this process of entangling ourselves with the abject does not get rid of it, and repetition of the impure does not necessarily bring with it knowledge of how to detach ourselves from impurity. This is what Aristotle opposed: the tendency to chase the violent/sexual gratification of the abject without any consideration for whether or not we are attaining new knowledge of our conditions, motives, and fears. Later in her essay, Kristeva advocates literature as a privileged means of purifying the abject through catharsis. Earlier on, though, she writes a more universal statement:
“Abjection is a resurrection that has gone through death (of the ego). It is an alchemy that transforms death drive into a start of life, of new significance.”
By mindfully examining the abject in everyday life—in first-hand experiences or in image, video, text, etc.—we can influence how the abject is “reborn.” But first we must allow it to break down the structures of meaning and order so we can be humbled, reexamining what we hold to be significant. Only once we have been humbled can we pick up the pieces of our world so we can reconstruct new and better ways of engaging with it.
So how can something like the image of an assassin standing triumphant over another man’s body help anyone? Is it worse to take Altıntaş, the gunman, at his word—to remember and be enraged by what’s happened in Aleppo—or to merely forget injustice? After all, as Sontag writes, when presented with photographs of suffering that are too vast, too global for individuals to feel they have a chance of alleviating, “[their] compassion can only flounder—and make abstract.” This sense of smallness in the grand scheme of things is a product of abjection, but we don’t have to leave it at that. Indeed, to do so would be to normalize an Evil that is abnormal. Instead, we should treat abjection not as it is, but as the thing it has the potential to be: a means of rejecting the normalization of suffering and horror. To do this, however, we first have to confront and reconstruct the very things that horrify us.