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The Aestheticization of Violence in Images


The paper aims to give a phenomenological account of the way in which the experience of violence is modified in the aesthetic images. The phenomenological framework in which I place my analysis is primarily given by Edmund Husserl’s conception. The investigation starts from the curious fact that violence cannot be aesthetically experienced when it is presented in person, but it can be aesthetically experienced in images. I claim that the reason for this asymmetry lies in the structure of image-consciousness, that is, in the differences between the physical thing, the depicting object and the depicted subject. Given that the image-consciousness presupposes the background of the physical thing, which is constantly and implicitly aimed by the consciousness, it is possible to focus only on the manner in which the depicted violence appears. In this way, we can aesthetically contemplate a violent scene without being disturbed by it. To show this, I bring forth a brief presentation of the a priori structure of (i) image-consciousness and (ii) aesthetic attitude, as they have been theorised by Husserl. After (iii) providing a minimal concept of violence and explaining some of the modifications that violence undergoes in image-consciousness, (iv) I show how violence is modified in aesthetic images.

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  1. See, for instance, Dastur (1991); Brough (1992, 1997, 2012); Marbach (1993, pp. 125-146)); Lories (2006); Ferencz-Flatz (2009a, b); de Warren (2010); Alloa (2011, pp. 188-217); Eldridge (2017); Rozzoni (2017, 2019); Mion (2018).

  2. In the following, I will follow the first edition of Logical Investigations. Given that the English translation follows the second edition, sometimes there will be significant differences between the text cited by me and the cited translation.

  3. I translate Gegenwärtigung as “presentation” and Vergegenwärtigung as “presentiation” as one of the anonymous reviewers has convincingly argued. On the difficulty of translating these terms into English, see also the translator’s note in Husserl, 2005, p. 1, or Marbach, 2012, p. 236.

  4. Husserl also expressed the distinction through the neologisms “axiontic” and “anaxiontic”—which derived from the ancient Greek words ἀξιόω (I claim) and ὄν (being)—but he rejected this terminology later. See, for instance, Husserl (1980, p. 356/ 2005, p. 428).

  5. The concept of positionality is most likely taken by Husserl from Kant, who define existence in terms of position. See, on this issue, Staiti, 2015, pp. 79-81.

  6. For a throughout historical and systematic analysis of the letter, see de Warren (2020).

  7. See, for instance, Sartre (1936, p. 150).

  8. See, for instance, Waldenfels, 1990, 2000; Liebsch, 2001; Staudigl, 2005, 2015; Dodd, 2009, 2017; Mensch, 2008, 2019; Breyer, 2017; the articles in Staudigl, 2014a, b; or the articles from some special issues concerning violence and phenomenology. See their introductions: Endreß & Rampp, 2013; Ciocan & Marinescu, 2019; Ciocan, 2020a.

  9. As one of the anonymous reviewers has pointed out, “in many cases, e.g. Baroque painting or contemporary news photography, it is immediately noticeable that there is a violent scene, and it immediately influences our perception and assessment of the work and image.” Indeed, images can also “intensify” the viewer’s experience of violence (see on this issue Ciocan, 2021, p. 341). For instance, some of Francisco Goya’s works, such as the painting Women attacked by soldiers or the print series The Disasters of War, may exhibit violence for the third in a more pregnant way even than some real experiences of violence.

  10. This can happen when an artist naively copies what Aby Warburg called “emotive formulas [pathosformeln].” An example can be found in one of Warburg’s lectures, in which he analyses a Florentin engraving illustrating Punishment of Cupid, which lacks “the truly antique emotive impetus,” (Warburg, 1999, p. 279) even if the author has most probably used as model a depiction from an antique sarcophagus. On the “dangers of the ‘pathos formula,’” other examples and how the artist can resist the temptation of simply importing some emotive formulas, see Gombrich (1970, pp. 179–183, 230–235). The reference to Warburg’s emotive formulas has been suggested to me by one of the anonymous referees.

  11. See also Heidegger’s (2010, p. 84) famous analysis of the relation between the relevance (Bewandtnis) of a thing and the totality of relevance (Bewandtnisganzheit).


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This work was supported by a grant from the Romanian Ministry of Research, Innovation and Digitization, CNCS/CCCDI – UEFISCDI (PN-III-P4-ID-PCE-2020-0791).

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Breazu, R. The Aestheticization of Violence in Images. Philosophia (2022).

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  • Violence
  • Image
  • Aesthetics
  • Aestheticization of violence
  • Phenomenology
  • Edmund Husserl