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Fraught Viewing: A Conversation with Editors Nicholas Baer, Maggie Hennefeld, Laura Horak, and Gunnar Iversen on Unwatchable

Marc Francis

From Film Quarterly, Spring 2019, Volume 72, Number 3

Let there be no ambiguity: the world has turned into a horror show, a modern-day political Grand Guignol of global proportions with an emerging Axis of Evil (Trump, Putin, al-Assad, and now, Bolsonaro in Brazil, to name only a few). Their bases are the virtual spaces of social media, their proscenium the many screens blanketing the planet with news alerts of the latest mass murder, police shooting, war-related atrocity, or xenophobic government policy. It has become all too common to see people look up from their laptops or phones and, with a hand clasped over their mouth, let out a guttural “Oh, my god.”

Enter Unwatchable, a new edited volume that feels chillingly relevant. Its unrivaled topicality may both explain and be explained by its unique form, for the volume comprises over fifty essays, each with a maximum word count of a mere fifteen hundred—anathema to the typically loquacious academic. Veteran theorists and emergent thinkers alike fill its pages with their musings, some self-reflective and others holistic, some making bold declarations and others committed to their ambivalence.

The collection charts several phenomena (most of which elicit visceral responses) that extend to subjects beyond the distress of the news media. These include the “extreme cinema” of Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Catherine Breillat, and Gaspar Noé; disquieting horror films, old and new; and television shows and films that deal with socially “difficult” subject matters that require “trigger warnings.” These works are presumed unwatchable since they are frequently associated with the repulsive, reprehensible, graphic, and censored.

But Unwatchable aims to deepen the concept’s connotations by also traversing such topics as the imperceptible. This tack is epitomized by Poulomi Saha’s essay on drone footage and Jonathan Crary’s piece on the documentation of Cold War–era nuclear-bomb testing. Both discuss how invisible technologies obscure the people and landscapes that they destroy. Experimental cinema that is too tedious or boring for normative audience appetites also gets due attention, with two pieces devoted to Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), his eight-hour static shot of the Empire State Building. J. Hoberman and Noël Carroll echo each other’s sentiments that perhaps it was not meant to have an audience at all. As an excruciating exercise in temporality and attention, could Empire simply be another one of Warhol’s ontological provocations—an intellectual stunt in that it is actually meant to repel rather than please viewers?

The question of taste remains afloat throughout the book. Authors admit to their own taste constraints that keep them from watching certain visual media—a refreshing move given the still-prevalent taboo that prohibits academics from divulging such leanings with candor. In one piece, Julian Hanich rails at Wes Anderson’s “precious cinema,” writing: “Hiding behind a cute harmlessness … [the films] nastily force their inventiveness upon me” (265). In another essay, Bill Nichols decries the bad lighting and camera angles in amateur porn, rendering it, for him, unsuitable for intended or ancillary purposes.

Wisely, the editors make clear from the outset that the watchable and unwatchable are “dialectically intertwined and often coterminous” (6). If deeming something unwatchable makes it all the more tempting to witness, surely there was and still remains an audience for a film such as Empire, or its opposite, Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002), as masochistic as such an audience may seem to outsiders.

The book is divided into three sections—“Violence and Testimony,” “Histories and Genres,” and “Spectators and Objects”—with debates and fissures that develop over the course of the text. One such discussion concerns trigger warnings. Jennifer Malkowski, in an essay on suicide imagery, considers the documentary The Bridge (Eric Steel, 2006) “unteachable” because of the threat of “suicide contagion.” However, Katariina Kyrölä contends that spotlighting certain traumas related to, in her example, sexual violence draws attention away from other seemingly mundane yet equally toxic guises of sexual violence, citing Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001) as her case study. She provocatively argues that “the language of trigger warnings, just like the language of prohibition, should be seen as performative” (321).

Triggered with and without warning, Vivian Sobchack and B. Ruby Rich return to their experiences watching—and not watching—horror films. Though mutually disturbed, they call for divergent solutions to their discomfort. Rich says she was “saved by technology,” opting to watch terrifying content at home on VHS or DVD instead of in the theater so that she can fast-forward and silence dreadful scenes or sequences. The phenomenologically inclined Sobchack, on the other hand, in her essay, “Peekaboo,” elects to stay in the theater, even as she averts her eyes. Celebrating the cinema’s sensuous conditions, she concludes her reception of horror films Isolation (Billy O’Brien, 2005) and The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005) with: “I was definitively, unpleasurably ‘here’ but also, dare I say, intensely and very pleasurably alive” (206).

Such debates invoke the question of ethics and spectatorship that has in recent years begun to interest film and media studies beyond the domain of documentary. Confronting histories and narratives of racially fueled violence, both Michael Boyce Gillespie and Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa caution against conflating watching with understanding. Wolukau-Wanambwa argues in his analysis of American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998) that “black death renders indispensable service to white redemption” in the film (113). By contrast, Gillespie focuses on an experimental black filmmaker, Ja’Tovia Gary, whose work is purposefully devoid of brutality against black bodies. Such a disarticulation of violence from blackness is equally relevant to a larger conversation about the necropolitics of documentary imagery that takes place across the anthology. Frances Guerin and Alexandra Juhasz assert that nothing in this context should be unwatchable; appalling inequity and gruesome violence must be shown, just as Emmett Till’s casket remained open and images circulated of refugee Alan Kurdi’s body washed ashore. Through such framings, the question of unwatchability becomes less about endurance than ethics—a theme that deepens as the book progresses.

The volume tackles the U.S. political zeitgeist head-on by dedicating several essays to Trump and his unstable administration. In “TV Trumps,” Lynne Joyrich claims Trump takes cues from the reality TV playbook to advance what she calls the “tribal individualism and individualist tribalism” of competition shows like Survivor (CBS, 2000–) and Amazing Race (CBS, 2001–). The book also zooms out to address what Trump and his cronies represent in a time of insurgent white nationalism, disaster capitalism, and contemptible government corruption. During the Obama years, film and media studies seemed to turn away from the problems of representation formerly central to cultural studies, instead focusing on moving-image technology and the digital. Unwatchable returns attention to cultural theory, infusing its axioms with a renewed sense of urgency via the field’s shifting interests (even if, for many, the urgency had never gone away).

Reading this book, I found myself wearing different hats, tapping into different sides of my intellectual curiosity, and I expect many others will feel the same. Surely, readers will skip chapters and essays that do not interest them, but it would be to their detriment to take such liberties, for these are times that demand discursive and disciplinary cross-fertilization. While many edited anthologies boast interdisciplinarity and intermediality, Unwatchable stands out for the astounding reach of the media and discourses marshalled under its theme. Its implications are manifold, evidence that “unwatchable” is more than just an aesthetic category. Unwatchable‘s editors suggest that the currently unobservable, whether expressly repudiated or involuntarily rendered invisible, will surely linger and haunt the public imagination for years—if not generations—to come.

Marc Francis: Allow me to start at the beginning. How did you as editors come together, why “unwatchable,” and why now?

Gunnar Iversen: It all started with La La Land [Damien Chazelle, 2016].

Maggie Hennefeld: Shortly after Trump’s 2017 inauguration, in the context of deliberately not talking about politics, several of us were kvetching about the film La La Land, which we all hated. One thing led to another, and Gunnar came up with the idea of editing a book on the unwatchable. Viewers are often much more animated discussing the media objects they passionately despise, rather than the ones they most admire. Social media breeds a culture of haters. We started to test the boundaries of this category and were amazed by its extremely broad range of implications—from avid aversions, to ideological blind spots, to materially degraded images. It’s like the unwatchable had been right under our noses the whole time, hiding in plain sight.

Nicholas Baer: We started to conceive the volume in the horrid wake of Trump’s inauguration and during a particularly contested Oscar year. At the same time, it was immediately evident to us that the “unwatchable” holds great currency across today’s entire media economy, from the cellphone videos of antiblack police brutality through the trigger warnings on college campuses to the Dana Schutz controversy at the 2017 Whitney Biennial.

Yet we wanted to avoid the presentism that marks many discussions of the contemporary media and political landscape, so we began to flag treatments of the unwatchable in film theory (Siegfried Kracauer’s reflections on “The Head of Medusa,” for instance) and, more generally, in the history of aesthetics.1 Given this enormous reach, the unwatchable seemed like a rich and generative concept to map at a time when cinema studies is increasingly assimilated into the broader fields of media studies and visual culture, and is entering into more sustained conversation with disciplines such as art history and philosophy.

Francis: How did you decide on a compilation of over fifty original short-form essays instead of, say, fewer and longer essays?

Hennefeld: We wanted to distinguish Unwatchable from a traditional academic volume. Our topic is so timely, and there’s something about the slow-burn temporality of long-form academic publishing that doesn’t always do justice to the resonances between critical thinking and the relentless pace of current events. Many of our contributors consider very recent works, such as Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017), Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016), or reality television shows leading up to the 2016 election. At the same time, it was important to us not to confine the idea of the unwatchable to one mode or discourse (such as art history or film theory). That meant inviting more contributors from all different interdisciplinary fields, as well as artists, curators, critics, activists, journalists, and media practitioners.

Baer: Short-form writing has assumed great significance in our habitual modes of interaction and knowledge formation—from text messages, social media posts, and news alerts to blog entries, listicles, and Internet think pieces. Nowadays, a single tweet of 280 characters or fewer can dominate a news cycle and ruin a career. We wanted our volume to adopt qualities of the present mediascape, with short and interconnected texts on overwhelming, even unbearable, experiences of digital-era spectatorship and news consumption. And the word limit enabled us to enlist many contributors who would have been too busy to write a standard-length chapter.

Francis: I really want to know how you solicited all these authors. What was your selection process?

Hennefeld: It was grueling. My initial impulse was to invite everyone I’ve ever met, but then I tried to overcompensate by being ruthlessly selective. We ended up with an enormous Excel spreadsheet full of categories to ensure that we had a really diverse and exciting range of contributors. We wanted to cast a wide net but to prioritize people who write in a very lively and provocative voice.

Laura Horak: In a way it was a dream process: “Let’s ask all the scholars and critics and filmmakers we most admire what media object they find most unwatchable!” Of course, we couldn’t actually ask everyone we wanted to, or the book would be a thousand pages. We knew we wanted scholars in film and media, philosophy, gender and sexuality studies, critical race and disability studies, but we didn’t want only scholars—we wanted cultural critics and artists, too. We also wanted a mix of established and new voices. We gave everyone a really short deadline—one summer, basically—and so several people we hoped would contribute weren’t able to do it in that time frame. We felt that the timeliness of the topic was worth being ruthless about deadlines. There is one person who said no that I had really, really hoped would say yes—John Waters. For me, he is the one that got away.

Iversen: It was both grueling and fun. We wanted even more contributors, but also needed to make sure the project was possible. When the essays started to appear in our in-boxes we were delighted because so many had done exciting and surprising things. I am sure readers will share this delight when they pick up the book.

Francis: Can you provide any insights into the organization of the book? What guided your structure and order?

Baer: The existing literature on the “unwatchable” applies the term to postmillennial art cinema characterized by transgressive depictions of explicit sex and brutal violence. Though we do have a handful of essays on such “extreme cinema,” we sought to expand the conceptual parameters of the unwatchable, claiming it more generally as a keyword for media studies. In the book’s introduction, we differentiate between myriad uses of the unwatchable (descriptive and prescriptive, commonplace and literal, contextual and absolute, et cetera) and consider its position in a semantic force field that also includes the invisible, unseen, unrepresentable, and sublime.

In organizing the book’s fifty-four contributions, we devised three thematic sections: political violence and testimony; film histories and genres (avant-garde, horror, pornography); and, finally, spectatorship along lines of taste, identity, and embodied experience.

Francis: In the introduction that you all coauthored, critical race theory, feminist and queer theory, and critical disability studies are named as some of the dominant discourses concerned with the “unwatchable.” Can you say a little more about how the essays are inflected by these discourses?

Horak: People of color, Indigenous people, queer and trans people, and people with disabilities constantly have to deal with the onslaught of toxic mainstream media culture. This toxicity ranges from politicians’ explicitly racist, sexist, and antitrans talking points, to virally circulating videos of police brutality and public trans bashing that somehow never lead to justice, to liberal Hollywood Oscar bait like The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011) that positions black women as instrumentalized helpmates to white women and children while patting itself on the back for its insight into Southern racism. In other words, marginalized people know a lot about how to assess, analyze, sometimes reject, but also how to sit with and sometimes transform the ostensibly unwatchable. There is a history of thinking through these questions—including, for example, bell hooks’s oppositional gaze, Stuart Hall’s oppositional and negotiated readings, and Alexander Doty’s queer reading practices.2

Our contributors describe many different strategies for dealing with toxic media. Some, like Alok Vaid-Menon, Alec Butler, and Ja’Tovia Gary (discussed by Michael Gillespie in his piece), use video, theater, and performance art to remediate things they find “unwatchable,” even while dreaming of a way out of the objectifying spectacularization of difference. Other activists question the ethics of screening certain things in classrooms and for the public. One piece of this activism is the burgeoning demand for “trigger warnings” in classrooms, which Jennifer Malkowski and Katariina Kyrölä discuss.

Francis: These critical theories have actively oriented critics, academics, and makers toward issues of affect and emotion. Is the anthology also entering into the broader scheme of affect theory?

Iversen: We wanted passionate essays, even subjective essays—texts that explored the unwatchable not only through aesthetics and ethics, but also through shared and lived experience. And we wanted readers to be surprised, either by encountering the unwatchability of others that could make you reflect on your own thoughts, experiences, and emotions, or by discovering that what you thought was your own subjective and highly individual unwatchability was shared by others and had a sociocultural dimension to it.

Hennefeld: I worry that there is often an unspoken assumption in affect studies that negative emotions or feelings are unwatchable, while joyful and affirmative feelings are merely deceptive, and therefore do not warrant sustained attention. For example, Sara Ahmed, Ann Cvetkovich, and Lauren Berlant have written extensively about pain, anger, depression, trauma, anxiety, and so forth. Ahmed even brands herself as a “feminist killjoy,” which I find evocative but also questionable.3 Cvetkovich focuses on depression and shame.4 Berlant often associates humor or pleasure with the trap of “cruel optimism.”5 We wanted to revel in the affective messiness of the unwatchable. Pleasure is not just something to be disciplined and upended, as in the Marxist-Lacanian ideological critique of enjoyment (which has echoes in feminist affect studies).

There’s often a perverse joy that energizes one’s own confrontation with the unwatchable. That joy really comes through in a number of essays here, such as Jeffrey Sconce’s piece on biopics, which he amusingly describes as “an affront to cinema,” as well as Julian Hanich’s hilarious takedown of auteurist “precious cinema” and Jack Halberstam’s skewering of white male melodrama, “White Men Behaving Sadly.” I was especially intrigued by Mel Y. Chen’s discussion of ableist, Jackass-like web videos, which they contrast with the feminist politics of certain forms of slapstick comedy.

Francis: I’m interested in a definition of “unwatchable” that is not solely predicated—ironically enough—on the optical. Several writers (Akira Mizuta Lippit, for example) also allude to the “unlistenable” as an attendant sensory experience. Do you have any further thoughts on this idea and how it is distinct from the largely visual experience on which the book focuses?

Iversen: Film and media studies is still profoundly ocular-centric, which is very strange since film has been audiovisual from the very beginning, and television without sound is impossible to imagine. Even though the visual is more important in our book, we also wanted our writers to point out how the acoustic elements contribute to the visceral reactions we have when we experience certain media objects. What would a horror film be without music or sound effects? What would a melodrama be without the melos? There are many media objects we can find hard to watch, and sometimes it is because of the interplay between images and sounds. Sometimes the sound of voices creates a haunting presence that makes images hard to watch, and sometimes the images themselves are unstomachable. This dialectic plays out in many of the essays in the book.

Horak: We directly asked contributors to take seriously the role of sound in making something difficult to sit through. Part of the ongoing problem here is the lingering ocular-centrism of our language for experiencing cinema—watching, seeing, spectating, et cetera. We couldn’t find an easily recognizable word that encompassed both watching and listening.

In their essay, Danielle Peers argues that the very concept of the “unwatchable” is ableist in its privileging of vision. Peers suggests, as an alternative, the concept of “unwitnessable,” which does not privilege any single sense or way of experiencing the world. I think that we, as editors located in the still-ocular-centric field of film and media studies, could not really do justice to Peers’s legitimate critique. It’s worth thinking more deeply and sustainedly about how critical disability studies could reorient our thinking in this field.

Baer: Mel Y. Chen has a wonderful piece on the “What Could Go Wrong” Reddit GIFs, arguing that the concept of the unwatchable—with “-able” as its very suffix—necessarily leads one to consider questions of ability and disability in relation to the human body and sensory apparatus. The term can also compel one to address the fundamental differences between human and nonhuman modes of vision, like that of a camera. In his contribution on Andy Warhol’s eight-hour Empire, Noël Carroll points out that what separates the “kino-eye” from human sight is not only the latter’s limited purview, receptivity, and spatiotemporal parameters, but also a sheer lack of perceptual endurance.

Francis: Were there submissions that surprised you, challenged you, even perhaps reoriented the book’s foci? Are there any that still haunt you?

Hennefeld: Yes, I was delighted that so many contributors took us up on our gesture to play around with the genre constraints of academic writing, especially by letting evocative memories leak through or thinking about the concept of the unwatchable in relation to the limits of written prose. I’m particularly haunted by moments when an author’s memories flash up in the thick of aesthetic contemplation. For example, in his essay about police brutality and antiracist, feminist video art, Michael Gillespie writes about a white schoolboy bully who unexpectedly apologized for the legacy of American slavery after watching the first episode of Roots (ABC, 1977). Rebecca Schneider has a vivid memory of when her little sister was blinded in one eye by an invasive parasite that ate away part of her retina—a memory triggered for her by the brief glimpse of eyeball-eating maggots in the title sequence of True Blood (HBO, 2008–14). I will now always associate those mental images with the idea of the unwatchable.

Iversen: Those contributions were haunting and felt more important or resonant every time I read them. The same goes for Jonathan Crary’s essay on the YouTube clip of the biggest atomic-bomb test ever. Some of the more playful texts also made an impression. I will not be able to see a biopic again in the same way after reading Jeffrey Sconce’s funny and polemical piece on the genre.

Francis: I couldn’t help but notice that none of the editors have individual pieces in the book. What objects, issues, or themes would you have written on?

Hennefeld: I was very tempted to write my own unwatchable essay, but our evil scheme was to make authors confront the unwatchable on their own terms, without telling them how others were interpreting the concept. So it would have felt like cheating for one of us to chime in while having access to everyone’s essays. Initially, I wanted to write about Fox News, but then I found the network too aggressively irritating to watch for long enough to write about it. That’s the paradox of Unwatchable: you have to engage with the very thing that you’ve proclaimed to be beyond the pale of consumption. At best, that’s therapeutic. At worst, it’s triggering and infuriating.

My next idea was to write about the horror film The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015), because it gave me vivid nightmares when I first saw it. I would lie awake at night in bed replaying the whole film over in my brain, like the images were implanted there. I couldn’t get rid of them, which is the terror of the unwatchable—that you’ll never be able to un-see it, like staring at Medusa or witnessing a trauma … or viewing a middlebrow art film about seventeenth-century Satanic witchcraft. Something about how the film forced me to inhabit the libidinal script for patriarchal oppression really chilled me to my bones.6 And everyone is obscenely paranoid about the demonic influence of a talking goat named Black Phillip! (Yet somehow it’s not a comedy.) Actually, I think The Witch uses the exact same libidinal script as Fox News, but it tricked me into letting my guard down with its intriguing cinematic aesthetics rather than its talking-head rants about migrant caravans or PC liberal hypocrisy. So maybe I would’ve written my essay about The Witch and Fox News together. But maybe it’s not too late! We were exploring the idea of editing a follow-up volume called the Unwatchabler.

Horak: As a film scholar who dreads watching horror films, I was surprised and happy to find out that I am not the only one! There are so many things that I don’t like to watch: scary movies, videos of Trump talking, people being mean to each other on reality TV shows, “quality” TV shows about the internal psychological drama of a wealthy white man who, in one way or another, doesn’t get everything he believes he is owed. Watching the things you find unwatchable carefully enough to be able to write about them is quite daunting. I have to thank our contributors for their tenacity.

Francis: You started out by disclosing that the entire project began with a shared disdain for La La Land. Would any of you have written on that?

Hennefeld: Well, the premise alone is offensive: a wounded white guy single-handedly saves jazz music from a more successful black musician. The enormous hype around the film, its Oscars rivalry with Moonlight, and its obscene lack of racial or queer diversity in its depiction of 2016 Los Angeles all contribute to my intense resentment of La La Land. It’s not an Adornian thing for me, either. I truly love Hollywood musicals. Singin’ in the Rain is my all-time favorite movie. What do others think?

Baer: It’s baffling that Chazelle would revisit midcentury Hollywood musicals without taking the opportunity to probe and challenge their racial, gender, and sexual politics. What’s more, La La Land never complicates the facile dualisms of remaining authentic or selling out, honoring cultural tradition or finding success in the current industry. Chazelle simply lacks a dialectical mode of thinking. If only he would read some Adorno!

Horak: It also reminded me of Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004) and the tradition of Hollywood congratulating itself for its own fake progressiveness and white savior–ism. Most of all, the film made me want to go home and watch a better musical with better characters, better choreography, and better dancing.

Francis: It sounds as if you as editors found solace in the rants, critiques, and lamentations included here. It makes me think of it as a kind of group therapy! I think that might apply to a lot of potential readers, too. How do you imagine your book being read? And how do you want it to be taught?

Iversen: One way of reading it is from the beginning to the end, or by individual sections or chapters. But just picking up randomly one text, and then moving to the next, just as randomly, thus creating new constellations and juxtapositions, is also a good way to start thinking about the unwatchable and its many blurred boundaries and ethical implications.

Horak: A tricky question: Should you show your class the media object that one of the contributors finds (in one way or another) unwatchable? The answer to this question is going to depend both on the particular essay and the specifics of the class. I hope that this book is helpful for teaching, because each of the short essays condenses some of the core conundrums at the heart of film and media studies in an accessible and visceral way.

Hennefeld: And apologies that the topic is so timely.


1. See Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).
2. See bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992); Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” in Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972–79, ed. Stuart Hall (London: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, 1980), 117–27; and Alexander Doty, Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
3. See Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2015).
4. See Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).
5. See Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
6. For more on The Witch and its gender politics, see Caetlin Benson-Allott, “They’re Coming to Get You … Or: Making America Anxious Again,” Film Quarterly 72, no. 2 (Winter 2018): 71–76.


BOOK DATA Nicholas Baer, Maggie Hennefeld, Laura Horak, and Gunnar Iversen, eds., Unwatchable. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2019. $99.95 cloth, $29.95 paper. 412 pages.

Read a selection of excerpts from Unwatchable.

© 2019 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.