University of Technology Sydney Law Research Series
Last Updated: 2 June 2017
The Continuing Problem of the Universal to Questions of
Justice: A feminist reading of Lars von Trier’s
It’s a little play with all the big subjects in it.
-- Thornton Wilder talking about his play Our Town in a letter to Gertrude Stein, 1937
Grace: “Why not just call it Dogville?”
Tom: “Wouldn’t work. No, it wouldn’t work. It’s got to be universal. A lot of writers make that mistake.”
-- Lars von Trier, Dogville
Abstract: What are the terms of evaluation that seem relevant in deciding whether a film is feminist or anti-feminist? Which critical practices should be engaged in such an evaluation? In recent and contemporary critical feminist practices, feminist arguments are no longer based on a stable subject category of “woman” and there is no longer any particular methodology upon which feminist theorists rely. The category of “woman” has been revealed to be not an ahistorical, stable category but an effect of material and representational practices. Further, feminist methodologies have been concerned to contextualize the framing of the questions they ask, as well as their place in the methodologies they employ. In addition to the refusal of an essentialized female subject, feminists have called into question the idea that it is possible to produce a “feminist method” based on the standpoint of a female subjectivity, even where this subjectivity is admitted as a construct, arguing that this extrapolation to the general from a particular point of view produces political, and frequently racist, effects. In this essay, I consider Lars von Trier’s controversial film Dogville (2003) as a case study to explore the relation of practices of representation to questions of feminist justice. I argue that the film does a lot of good critical work in showing the ways in which certain practices of representation can be mobilized to produce a collectivity (or “sovereignty”) that is seen to emanate from “the people” and to thereby instantiate authority, while simultaneously disguising the material and political effects of its subjugation of “others.” However, in doing this work the film produces its own problematic construction of universality and particularity. Further, the film instrumentalizes representations of sexual violence and subjection in order to prove its point, and as productive as these tactics are to illuminating questions of social justice, I argue that this representational practice produces effects that need to be read as anti-feminist.
Keywords: feminist aesthetics; von trier; justice; representation.
Author information: Dr Honni van Rijswijk, Senior Lecturer and Co-convenor of the Law and Culture Group, School of Law, UTS
What are the terms of evaluation that seem relevant in deciding whether a film is feminist or anti-feminist? Which critical practices should be engaged in such an evaluation? In recent and contemporary critical feminist practices, feminist arguments are no longer based on a stable subject category of “woman” and there is no longer any particular methodology upon which feminist theorists rely. The category of “woman” has been revealed to be not an ahistorical, stable category but an effect of material and representational practices. Further, feminist methodologies have been concerned to contextualize the framing of the questions they ask, as well as their place in the methodologies they employ. In addition to the refusal of an essentialized female subject, feminists have called into question the idea that it is possible to produce a “feminist method” based on the standpoint of a female subjectivity, even where this subjectivity is admitted as a construct, arguing that this extrapolation to the general from a particular point of view produces political, and frequently racist, effects. Critical attention has moved from the kinds of grand, structural analyses of the 1980s towards specific, local approaches. Although it is somewhat problematic to assert a definitively “feminist” approach, I would position feminist theory within the terrain of contemporary theory by suggesting that a feminist approach is one which negotiates a number of methodologies, one that is flexible and responsive, but one that should still be concerned with sets of thematics that have historically been feminism’s domain. In this essay, I consider Lars von Trier’s controversial film Dogville (2003) as a case study to explore the relation of practices of representation to questions of feminist justice. Dogville is the first film in von Trier’s USA: Land of Opportunity trilogy, which includes Manderlay (2005) and the now deferred Wasington. The film tells the story of the inhabitants of a small town, called Dogville, who subject a fugitive, Grace Margaret Mulligan, to violence and degradation, while telling her (and each other) that their actions are moral and just. Ultimately, Grace responds by having the entire town razed to the ground, and all its people slaughtered. As viewers, we are asked to judge Dogville’s actions, and Grace’s response. In my reading of the film Dogville below, I suggest that a feminist approach requires attention to the thematic interests of the film, the film’s logics and the way in which it articulates subjection and subjectivity. I argue that the film does a lot of good critical work in showing the ways in which certain practices of representation can be mobilized to produce a collectivity (or “sovereignty”) that is seen to emanate from “the people” and to thereby instantiate authority, while simultaneously disguising the material and political effects of its subjugation of “others.” However, in doing this work the film produces its own problematic construction of universality and particularity. Further, the film instrumentalizes representations of sexual violence and subjection in order to prove its point, and as productive as these tactics are to illuminating questions of social justice, I argue that this representational practice produces effects that need to be read as anti-feminist.
My reading of Dogville considers the significance of practices of representation to law’s roles in adjudicating violence and harm. This paper provides a reading of the film as an aesthetic and affective critique of liberal law and liberal democracy. In particular, through its constant reference to its own status as representation, the film draws attention to the ‘contract’ as a key and problematic trope that animates democracy, the rule of law, and moral value. The film’s interest in contract embraces the social contract, as well as the individual contractual arrangements that regulate contemporary legal and social life. In Dogville, the meaning of “contract” comes to exceed the literal idea of exchange, becoming instead an authorising metaphor for exploitative, even sadistic, social and legal relations. Dogville interrogates the central tenets of liberal democracy by rehearsing its logics and then inverting them. In staging the ways in which moral value and popular support found authority, combined with its focus on the animating figure of the “contract,” Dogville critically exposes the underpinnings of political community. The film’s critique of liberal democracy is articulated in aesthetic, affective and conceptual terms. The film extends the framework of harm beyond the personal, to include the violent histories, contexts and concepts that have produced legal concepts including “contract,” “sovereignty,” and even “law” itself.
From the beginning of the film, it is clear that Dogville has seen better times: the mines have closed, there are references to Depression-era hardship, and there is no money. The town writer, Thomas Edison Jr, stumbles upon a fugitive, Grace Mulligan, and encourages the community of Dogville to harbor her. Not willing to see themselves as lacking in generosity, they agree to do so. Over a series of interactions that are self-consciously staged in the film, the townspeople proceed to subjugate Grace, while representing their actions to Grace and to themselves as morally justified. She is eventually enslaved, forced to provide free labor and subjected to collective, ongoing sexual violence. At the end of the film, Grace’s mafia father arrives to rescue her and she seeks revenge/justice by annihilating the town’s inhabitants, including their children. Formally the film negotiates allegory and historical specificity: Tom Edison is an Everyman character but one who is particularized as a citizen of a town that comes to be marked as aberrant. The film resists realism, staged on a sound-set that is blank apart from chalk markings and a few scattered props. An unseen narrator comments on events, which are framed as “a prologue and nine chapters.” Although some critics have read Dogville variously as a religious allegory or as equally likely to be about Europe as North America, there is enough that is historically and culturally specific about the film to argue that a better reading locates it in an American context. It has been compared to Our Town and it makes sense to read Dogville as a comment on cultural practices of representation in which American small towns have been taken up to exemplify a wider point about “ordinariness,” “community,” and the “will of the people.” Dogville is highly stylized and minimalist, and shares other formal qualities with Our Town, which also uses sparse scenery, and has a Stage Manager narrator who addresses the audience directly. Our Town is considered a classical American play, the sort of play that emphasizes ordinariness and the accessibility of its thematics and language; it is frequently performed in community theaters and high schools. The play upholds “human values,” such as innocence, through a sentimentalized story of a poor white community at the turn of the twentieth century.
Although it makes use of a Depression-era working class aesthetic, the film’s concern is not so much with a reading of a particular historical moment but with the production of sets of modernist logics that have produced political effects. Dogville takes up this setting as a background to provide a critique of the sorts of logical and political practices this aesthetic has been used to reinforce. Dogville is an allegorical film that references historical events but it resists a reading of any particular event. The film’s objective is rather to disrupt logics that have historically been used to justify violence, logics that instrumentalize ideas of community, romance, justice, small white American towns, self-reliance, charity, mercy and “grace.” I will argue that one of the problems with the film is this critical approach of loosening the logics it examines from historical specificity, while simultaneously inviting readings that have historical consequences.
The primary logic that the film critiques is a logic of power based on the “will of the people,” which in modernity has become the predominant way to justify the exercise of political power (and is often shorthanded as “sovereignty”). This logic is frequently used to justify subjugation by a community of those who are said to lie outside its boundaries, where that “outside” might be marked as a territorial outside, such as in the case of colonialism, or as a constructed, “othered” subjectivity, such as in the case of plantation slavery. Dogville demonstrates the ways in which a logic based on the “will of the people” can be used to subjugate a stranger to the community. The inhabitants of Dogville, who claim they “don’t ask nothin’ from nobody” take almost everything from Grace. In the beginning, Grace is preparing to cross the Rocky Mountains when she is discovered and invited to stay in Dogville by the town philosopher/writer, Thomas Edison Jr. Tom persuades the townspeople to allow her to stay, which they agree to, on the condition that there be a trial period during which, by “living side by side with her,” they will have the opportunity to “unmask her.” At Tom’s instigation, Grace provides labor for the town, which is represented to her as being labor that nobody needs. After the police visit Dogville “for the first time in living memory,” the townspeople seek to balance an increase in perceived risk by requiring an increase in material and specific sacrifices on the part of Grace. Over a series of exchanges, many of which are orchestrated by Tom, Grace agrees to work harder for less pay, is increasingly exploited, and is ultimately subjected to rape and enslavement. The mafia returns at the end of the film, and Grace is revealed to be the daughter of the mafia boss, from whom she was running when she happened upon Dogville. Following a discussion with her father, Grace orders the massacre of all the town’s inhabitants, including the women and children. She shoots Tom Edison Jr in the head herself.
The collective will of the inhabitants of Dogville is thematized through the town meetings held to discuss the community’s collective treatment of Grace, and the involvement of the entire community in Grace’s subjection, including its children. This effect is achieved very deliberately in the film, in which Grace is shown to provide labor to every adult member of the town, is taunted by its children, and is subjected to sexual violence by every man. Further, the denaturalized set, in which buildings are merely outlined in chalk on the ground, emphasizes the visibility of all that happens to her; the entire community witnesses her rape and enslavement.
Collectively, the villagers disguise and misrepresent their actions towards Grace by recourse to discourses of justice, fairness and even romance. Distinct stages in Dogville’s treatment of Grace are marked by explicit representational exchanges; the progression of her position from fugitive to exploited laborer to subjugated, enslaved subject is mediated, each stage being marked in a deliberate way by a statement, usually made by Tom or the narrator, which describes the terms of the exchange and the purported justification behind it. Grace is told the ways in which she will benefit; and the benefit is said to be fair and mutual. Acts of violence and exploitation are all mediated in this way. Dogville controls the means of representation, and instrumentalizes discourses of romance, fairness, community, and charity. One of the effects of this is to deconstruct ideas of a “correct” morality or justice – instead, Dogville shows how these ideas are instrumenalized by whoever has the control over representation. The townspeople appeal to a number of discourses to justify their actions, including criminality (“by not telling the police they feel they’re committing a crime themselves”) and economy (they argue that “from a business perspective,” Grace’s presence in Dogville becomes “more costly” and therefore that she must provide free labor as part of a just “quid pro quo”). Romantic discourse is also instrumentalized – Grace’s romance with Tom begins as appropriately sentimental, starting with a declaration of love in the orchard during a Fourth of July picnic. As the film progresses it becomes increasingly surreal – even when she is chained to the wheel, Tom speaks and acts as though they are still engaging in a “romance,” despite Grace’s statements that this is impossible in her circumstances. Similarly, Grace’s sexual abuse by Vera’s child Jason, and by Vera’s husband Chuck, are both accompanied by the language of preference and “liking.” When Jason threatens Grace, he encapsulates the implied threats of the town through words of “liking” and “niceness”: “You want my Ma to like you, and let you stay. You’ll just have to be nice to me.” There is a tension in the townspeople’s language, which comprises representations that characterize themselves as charitable, yet refuses to acknowledge that they will derive material contributions from Grace. Instead of working longer hours, Tom proposes that Grace make visits twice a day, so that “it would seem” she is “willing to contribute more,” without it “actually lengthening” her day (emphasis mine). As well as this, her pay will be cut as a “symbolic gesture”. Their representation of themselves to themselves continues to deny the consequences of their material demands: the narrator tells us that “everyone was against changes in Grace’s working conditions whenever it came up in conversation” (my emphasis) while they continue to derive benefits from her labor, which has earlier been represented to her and to themselves as unnecessary. Her labor becomes a spectacle: even when the utility of her labor decreases as a result of increased demands, the townspeople remain committed to enforcing the regime. While Grace refuses the truth of their representations, countering their demands for labor as “difficult to put into practice” and characterizing their language as “the kind of language the gangsters would use,” she has no choice but to accept the community’s terms. As their exploitation of her increases in the film, appeals to fairness, via particular uses of logic, also increase.
Dogville demonstrates that a logic of power based on the “will of the people,” said to instantiate morality or justice, is in fact violence-producing and arbitrary. We see the shift in power between Dogville and Grace occur on the basis of a moral shift, which is marked aesthetically in the film by a “change of light.” The point at which Grace makes a moral judgment, deciding that she would never have done what the villagers did, determines the shift in power dynamics. Her opinion of the town’s inhabitants changes from one in which they are “doing their best under very hard circumstances” to one in which they are judged according to her own standards and deemed to fail: “If she had acted like them, she could not have defended a single one of her actions and could not have condemned them harshly enough.” This change in moral opinion provokes her to take the power offered by her father and bring about “justice,” which is expressed in the following hyperbolic terms: “if one had the power to put it to rights, it was one’s duty to do so, for the sake of the other towns. For the sake of humanity, and not least, for the sake of the human being that was Grace herself.” The question we are invited to consider as Grace sets about destroying the town and its inhabitants is whether this judgment is justified. The killing of the townspeople, like their treatment of Grace, is staged carefully. Discussing the matter in the car with her father, Grace enumerates the townspeople’s wrongs and discusses their execution. Deliberate parallels are made to earlier events in the film, and we are invited to consider how we judge Grace’s reaction. At first it might seem cruel that Grace orders Vera’s children to be shot while she watches, calling up the parallel situation of Vera smashing Grace’s figurines while Grace was made to watch; there is a parallel logic at work, although this punishment might be disproportionate, and the children hold some moral culpability independently of their mother’s actions, having rung the bell each time Grace was raped. When the baby is shot, however, we are supposed to change our minds, and realize the terrible consequences of this logic based on morality that produces “justice.” At this point, the narrator’s identification with Grace ceases, and ours is supposed to as well – we are meant to judge her. With the destruction of the baby, it becomes clear that the logic being invoked is the kind of pre-emptive logic that goes beyond individual acts of culpability and extends to justifications of practices of ethnic cleansing: the future town, symbolized by the baby, must be annihilated “for the sake of other towns, for the sake of humanity .... .” Grace argues that this annihilation is necessary to prevent further acts of victimization: otherwise, “it could happen again. Somebody happening by, revealing their frailty ...” The particularity of Dogville must be destroyed, for the good of “humanity” and for Grace herself. In this last sequence, “justice” is thereby dis-articulated from sovereignty: it is not the will of the people but Grace’s will, instrumentalized through the mafia, that brings about their demise, providing an argument that the end-point of these logics is a violence that loses even ostensible justification, violence based only on arbitrary will, as arbitrary as the “change of light” Grace witnesses.
What might be feminism’s concern with this representation of a dismantling of logics that produce sovereignty? One concern ought to be the film’s effects that are in excess to its critique of sovereignty. This film points to the limits of practices of representation (including critical practices) that purport to provide a critique of a logic in ways that are disarticulated from specificity while simultaneously referencing specificity. Here I examine two effects that are problematic: first, the use of white exceptionalism; and second, the film’s use of subjection. I argue that the film’s practices of representation have the effect of shoring-up the logics of universal liberalism that it purportedly attempts to critique. Further, that the film does so by instrumentalizing representations of subjection (sexual violence, colonialism and slavery). In order to prove its point, Dogville allegorizes subjection using allusions to historically specific situations, in ways that empty these references other than to instrumentalize them for Dogville’s particular project.
First, as part of its critique of the logics of sovereignty, Dogville engages with the dialectic of universality and particularity, purporting to show how this dialectic forms part of violent representational practices. From the point of view of Dogville, Grace is exceptional – the stranger, the fugitive, the “othered” minority – and so vulnerable to being treated badly. However, as viewers we never accept her as exceptional. The “every town” status is disrupted at the beginning of the film by the ironic description of the town and its inhabitants by the English-accented narrator, as well as by the way in which it is marked as working-class and historically specific. Dogville is represented by the narrator as isolated, the sort of town that at the best of times would be humble but in the present difficult economic circumstances is fairly “wretched.” Throughout the film, the narrator mediates the villagers’ representations to Grace and so guides our reaction and judgment of their actions. Although the town is critiqued for treating Grace poorly for being exceptional, exceptionality and universality function at another level in the film, the exceptionality of the aberrant working class community working in the end to shore-up universal, liberal logics.
In “White Savagery and Humiliation, or A New Racial Consciousness in the Media,” Annalee Newitz provides a reading of the film The Planet of the Apes, arguing that it produces representations of a problematic, racialized whiteness. Newitz positions The Planets of the Apes at the beginning of a genealogy of films that represent savage, “othered” whiteness, in which lower-class whites are racialized against a “norm” of middle-class whiteness through a primitive/civilized binary (134). According to Newitz, this genre evolves into various plays on the “white trash” aesthetic, including Natural Born Killers, a selection of B-grade horror flicks, and the “creep” or “loser” working class, white male aesthetic of the early 1990s. In Dogville, the community’s behavior is similarly marked as “savage,” but this savagery is complicated by the ways in which the behavior is mediated by polite discourses around exchange, morality and charity: the inhabitants are self-consciously negotiating the category of “white trash,” and resisting it through their rhetoric at the same time that they use this rhetoric in an attempt to mask their violence. They are judged by the narrator (and the audience) for their abuse of liberal logics in a way that violates Grace. They are made savage, then, both by their material practices and through their practices of representation, in which they are shown to parody liberal discourses. Their use of this discourse becomes further evidence of their particularity and savagery. The logics that they assert to justify their authority and their actions are revealed not to be just or universal – but it is suggested that these logics fail in part because they are produced by an aberrant community. This particularity is destroyed along with the town. Although we are meant to judge the entire eradication of the town and read it as the problematic effect of Grace’s poor logic, the destruction of this particularity opens up the possibility of a reinstatement of liberal logics. There is an ambivalence about what is destroyed is it the particularized aberration of the township, or a valuable site of “humanity?”
This ambivalence arises because of aesthetic practices in the film that mark the inhabitants of Dogville as both aberrant and “human.” The representation of the town can be usefully paired with another representation of Depression-era poor communities. During the closing credits of the film, David Bowie's "Young Americans" plays while Depression-era photographs of the rural poor flash up, along with photographs of contemporary urban and rural poor. Here are the “realist” corollaries to von Trier’s allegorical representation. The Depression-era photographs are taken from Walker Evans’ and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the work of a photographer and a journalist who through photographs and text document the lives of three families of tenant farmers in rural Alabama in 1936. The purpose was to invoke social change. Jeanne Follansbee Quinn argues that Praise both supports and challenges liberal discourses of universality, presenting its sharecropper subjects as simultaneously human as Agee's middle-class audience yet completely particular. Although the book seeks the response of a gaze that goes beyond a reading of particularity in order to reveal common humanity, Quinn argues that the text also argues for the limits of identification. Quinn argues that this is done “by infusing sentimentalism with irony, turning standard documentary tropes into a means for representing the paradoxical condition of radical universalism and incommensurability” (340). Similarly, Dogville uses both identification and disidentification, invoking the aberration of the town in its judgment of liberal logics, but then appealing to its status as “human” in order to invoke our judgment of Grace’s actions.
The second question I wish to address is how to read the representations of subjection in the film? The film mobilizes different categories of “victim,” demonstrating and critiquing the ways in which victimhood is instrumentalized in logics that produce violence. The town uses its status as economic victim to subjugate Grace; Grace uses her status as wronged victim to justify her annihilation of the town’s inhabitants. The film thereby provides a critique of the kinds of stories in which the “other” is shown to subjugate the subject with whom we are supposed to identify, justifying revenge, retaliation, and pre-emptive justice. These kinds of narratives have historically been used to justify racist and colonialist projects. However, Dogville does not provide an effective critique of this kind of use of rape narrative, merely by representing the narrative within a logic that it marks as problematic. All Dogville does through this technique is to again instrumentalize a representation of subjection in order to prove a point. Therefore, we are merely provided with another “rape as metaphor for ...” narrative, and whether it is being instrumentalized by racist or anti-racist, colonialist or anti-colonialist purposes, this practice should be queried. Dogville’s instrumentalization of subjection is further problematic because it is unclear exactly what is being instrumentalized. It is possible to read Grace’s subjugation as an allegory of plantation slavery, the treatment of immigrants to USA, or as a play on the kinds of white slave myths that were used to justify racist colonial projects. It could even be read as a working class revenge fantasy against a woman marked as middle class. Historical particularities such as colonialism and slavery are referenced but the representations are left at face-value, used only to prove larger points in the film. The film references historically specific moments but fails to provide an analysis of the ways in which this specificity articulates with subjugation. While it would be tempting to read the film as intervening in “rape narrative” myths, I don’t think this can be done. The marking of the perpetrators as white, for example, is not enough to characterize the representation of rape as one that engages an anti-racist strategy, especially as the inhabitants are racialized as aberrantly white.
The film invokes subjection in order to prove its point about the use of particular liberal logics in modernity without deconstructing the production of subjectivity as it is articulated with subjugation. While we are very far from an ahistorical, non-racialized representation of “woman,” there is a blurriness in the articulation between subjectivity and subjection that makes the representation of subjection problematic in the film. Grace’s status as a “woman” is seen to be produced by sexual violence, “romance” and kinship, as well as class and race, but in ways that are obscured by references alternatively to universal humanity and racialized, classed particularity. This opens up wider questions in terms of the representational practices of the film: What does it mean when an allegory of colonization is set in a first-world context? What kinds of representational practices are necessary in order to negotiate the relationship between mythical narratives (for example, the “white slavery” narratives that justified colonial projects, or rape narratives in the US context that justified violence against African Americans) and historically specific narratives that purport a connection to “reality”?
The significance of aesthetics to authority and subjugation
The film belabours the community’s representation of itself to itself—going beyond the representation of subjugation alone, to represent the connection of subjugation to sovereignty. Ultimately, Dogville rejects the possibility that liberalism’s promises (of equality, justice, etc.) can be achieved by participating in the conditions of abstraction—that is, the intervention cannot succeed where it is based on debates about the quality of abstract values of fairness or equality. We are compelled to go beyond a thematic reading of questions of contract and fairness, and encouraged to experience the role of representation in determining these questions.
Romantic language, and the language of affection, are also used as part of these bargains. Grace’s ‘romance’ with Tom begins with a declaration of love in the orchard during a Fourth of July picnic. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly surreal. Even when Tom is inflicting violence upon Grace, even when she is chained to a wheel, Tom speaks and acts as though they are still engaging in a ‘romance.’ Similarly, Grace’s manipulation by Vera’s young son Jason, and rape by Vera’s husband Chuck, are both accompanied by the language of preference and ‘liking.’ When Jason threatens Grace, demanding that she spank him or he will tell on her to his mother, he encapsulates the implied threats of the town through words of ‘liking’ and ‘niceness’: he says, “You want my Ma to like you, and let you stay? You’ll just have to be nice to me.”
As the level and frequency of exploitation increases in the film, appeals to fairness, through these uses of logic, also increase, until Grace provides her own striking counter-“illustration” at the end of the film. The logic of the representations made to Grace become increasingly strained. In return for her continuing, specific and material sacrifices, the recompense on behalf of the townspeople become ever more distant and abstract. The language of these exchanges includes of a number of conditional and counterfactual statements. Time is bound up with these logics: in the case of problematic conditionals, the knowledge status can only be revealed over time; for counterfactuals, an alternate present is posited. In Dogville, these logical structures always place the obligations of the townspeople in a notional future, or an alternate present, to which Grace never has real recourse. Grace is still required to fulfill the requirements of her obligations immediately, with the constant threat of violence or expulsion if she fails. We are never in the ‘now’ of the obligation, except in terms of the labour, obligation or suffering Grace must provide, which is immediate. These fictions allow the townspeople to maintain their representations to themselves as charitable and kind without ever being required to act. When these requirements are called upon they fail: Chuck “forgets” to ring the bell to warn Grace of the approaching mafia, breaking their agreement, while Tom simply betrays her to the mafia. This temporal deferral of obligation assists in the communities’ self-representation as just and fair—combining both moral and democratic authority. Contracting for Grace becomes an act of submission, even subjection.
In one of the most awful exchanges of the film, Ben represents to Grace that it is only out of fairness that he rapes her. He does so by denying that they have entered into a normal commercial arrangement, comparing their agreement with an imaginary standard: “in the freight industry carrying a dangerous load costs more. A surcharge, they call it. If this were a professional job, I could just charge you.” Stephen Best argues that a counterfactual “subordinates a self-identical and experientially grounded ‘now’ to the vicissitudes of an alternative history of events which have not happened” (215). For Grace, the community always demands something immediate and material, whereas for Dogville, there is recourse to deferment. There is a relation between these representations and the materiality they mediate, produce and occlude. As Best argues with respect to the counterfactual form, the representation “mirror-like, transposes the actual world into its imaginary and inverted equivalent” (210), creating immediate benefits to the community, but granting Grace only imaginary or deferred benefits.
When the police arrive the first time, Tom tells Grace that although Dogville “couldn’t really argue that anything had changed,” a “counterbalance, some quid pro quo” is required of her. “From a business perspective,” Tom argues, Grace’s presence “has become more costly” because she is a risk, and “[t]here is also more of an incentive” for her to want to stay. Instead of working longer hours, Tom proposes that Grace make visits twice a day, so that “it would seem” she is “willing to contribute more,” without it “actually lengthening” her day (emphasis mine). As well as this, her pay will be cut as a “symbolic gesture” (emphasis mine).
There is clearly a tension between the representation of the exchange and its material consequences. It is difficult to see how extra work visits cannot “actually” lengthen a person’s day. It is obvious that a cut in pay is more than a “symbolic gesture,” but an act that has material effects. The exchange also thinly veils a threat, as it is declared to be a way of “heading off any unpleasantness.” Through the use of words such as “seem,” “actually,” and “symbolic,” the townspeople instrumentalise appearance itself. The townspeople’s representation of their exchange with Grace, mediated through Tom, represents the exchange to Grace while also representing themselves to themselves. At the initial town meeting, where Dogvillians agree to harbour Grace, the motivation comes from their desire to see themselves as helpful and kind people. There is a tension in their language, however, which comprises representations that characterise themselves as charitable, yet refuses to acknowledge that they will derive material contributions from Grace. While the actual requirements of Grace in these exchanges are specific and material, the demands on the townspeople are more nebulous and abstract. Grace’s labour is represented partly as compensating Dogville for particular perceptions or emotions: “by not telling the police they felt they were committing a crime themselves,” (as though this feeling, whether justified or not, is sufficient of itself); Mrs Henson was “made nervous” by the “word ‘dangerous’.” There is an emergent hypothetical reasoning in the exchanges, implicit in this exchange, as the increased risk for the townspeople. Further, a change in material conditions is coded in the language of appearance in ways that denies any “real” change, while simultaneously validating the discourse of what is fair to themselves. This language of fairness makes specific—and excessive— demands of Grace. Grace’s contribution is represented to her in a way that denies its materiality. Her labour becomes a spectacle: even when the utility of Grace’s labour decreases as a result of increased demands, the townspeople remain committed to enforcing the regime.
Grace does not engage with the representation of exchange on the same terms as the townspeople. Grace denies the objectivity or fairness of this bargain, and points to its underlying violence, telling Tom that his words “sound like words that the gangsters would use....” She wryly responds that the “counterbalance” plan seems “difficult to put into practice.” Grace summarises the bargain as it truly is, by telling Tom that she is willing to “work harder, longer hours for less pay,” as she has no choice. “Whatever it takes,” she tells Tom. Dogville has control over the representation, and so is able to code its conditions. What emerges is a thematic of “justice” determined by the townspeople, that is bound up with what Jacques Derrida characterises as “performative force,” which “is always an interpretative force” (13) and inherently violent. While these moments are neither inherently “just nor unjust,” they are represented as just through a “discourse of self-legitimation” (Derrida 1980: 36). This control over the means of representation is crucial, both to the “emergence of justice” (Derrida 1980: 13) and the violence that is inherent in this representation. We see a succession of these originary and constitutive moments in the film: I would argue that each of these key exchanges demonstrates the binding of violence with the townspeople’s assertions of ‘justice’. Representation itself is bound up with questions of justice and assertions regarding the ‘justice’ of actions are inherently suspect.
Dogville provides no “way out” of its own logics of representation. The terms of “just exchange” that are coded by the townspeople through most of the film are violently recoded by Grace at the end. No explanation for this change in control of representation is provided outside a reductive explanation such as “power.”
Affective complicity in Dogville
Complicity is joined together with the very idea of exchange. The characters reproduce our own status as audience and here von Trier questions the very act of being a spectator. Of particular interest is the way the camera captures the rape scene in the context of the political condition of the town’s collective guilt, and the way it shifts from Dogville’s collective subject to the collective in the auditorium. Unlike Brecht, the viewer is not interpellated as a positive force for change. The viewer identifies with Grace, and yet we are also given an omniscient point of view. When the camera captures the actors looking at Grace’s rape, we share their point of view—not Grace’s. But at the final reversal, when Grace enacts revenge, we realise that have been identifying with a problematic subject. We are likely to maintain our identification with her, however, and feel some relief at her apocalypse, while at the same time judging the excessiveness of Grace’s violence and feeling the discomfort of that passive position of judgment. The film is not arguing that if we were only morally better, more just, then violence would cease. It is critical of a neoliberal aesthetic and neoliberalism’s positioning of the (moral) self (as ultimate juridical subject position). The film exposes our own complicity as honorary liberal thinkers with Dogville and with Grace, as well as our own sado-masochistic satisfaction with the destructive conclusion. Here, the jurist is a voyeur, someone who takes ambivalent pleasure in pain.
The film plays with a poetics of exceptionalism, and is ambivalent about the relationship between violence and law. The inhabitants of Dogville argue that they are upholding the rule of law when they are clearly exploiting Grace’s labor, as the unlawful figure, both a stranger and seeking asylum. The townspeople argue that this is justified by the exceptional circumstances of their poverty and historically hard times, in addition to their justification under the principle of exchange/contract. These arguments are thematised throughout the film, and are continually shifting. When the townspeople violate Grace, through slavery and rape, they present their violence as a necessary evil. When Grace argues for the execution of Dogville, she argues that her violence is a necessary good—evoking the figure of the victim whose unique call to justice may transcend laws.
The film mobilises different categories of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘victim,’ demonstrating and critiquing the ways in which victimhood is instrumentalised. The town uses its status as economic victim to subjugate Grace; and in turn, Grace uses her status as wronged victim to justify her annihilation of the town’s inhabitants. The film thereby provides a critique of the kinds of stories in which the ‘other’ is a threat, as a perpetrator to the subject with whom we are supposed to identify, in turn justifying revenge, retaliation, and pre-emptive justice. The film invokes subjection in order to prove its point about the use of particular logics in modernity—the ways in which subjectivity is articulated with subjection, and the ways in which subjection becomes instrumentalised. This is the logic of genocidal violence—a claimed frailty or vulnerability used to justify violent actions against a particular group of people. For Walter Benjamin, modern law comes from this kind of genocidal exclusion, and such violence is required for the continuing formation of the state: “All violence as a means is either lawmaking or law-preserving”, and is “implicated in the problematic nature of law itself” (115). Law asserts an exclusive role in the adjudication of violence, thereby establishing its own jurisdiction, and thereby either ‘making’ or ‘preserving’ itself. Law’s claim to an exclusive role in adjudicating violence has been central to the production of law’s authority in modernity, and central, too, to modernist politico-philosophical analyses of law’s authority.
Dogville not only illustrates the deadlocks of liberal reasoning, but the aesthetics of it, and the way it feels to be a complicit player within it—not only the moral position of this point of view, but the pleasure and pain of it. Aesthetics and affect are not epiphenomenal to questions of justice; when we go beyond the analysis of the social contract as a logic or concept, and explore it instead as an aesthetic, we see how contract animates violence in democracy beyond reason, no longer marking exchange but instead figuring violent exploitation. Ultimately, Dogville rejects the possibility that liberalism’s promises (of equality, justice, etc) can be achieved by participating in the conditions of abstraction—that is, intervention cannot succeed where it is based on debates about the quality of abstract values of fairness or equality. In liberal traditions, reason is naturalised as the key mode of constituting and critiqueing legal and political forms. Dogville points to what opens up, in terms of both critique and possibility, when aesthetics or affect become the mode of enquiry. Despite the logical deadlock of the film’s denoument, there is the possibility of moving between aesthetic and empathic positions—for example, empathy, disgust, pleasure and horror; between the abstract and the particular positions of Grace and the villagers, even the dog. Inhabiting these different positions perhaps opens up new critical modes—for example, re-thinking the nature of contract from Grace’s position.
Abella, Adela and Zilkha, Nathalie. 2004. Dogville: a parable on
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Best, Stephen. 2004. The fugitive’s properties: Law and the poetics of possession. Chicago:
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Agee, James and Evans, Walker. 1939. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Figer, Bo. A dog not yet buried – Or Dogville as a political manifesto. P.O.V. Film and
Hartman, Saidiya. 1997. Scenes of Subjection : Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Horeck, Tanya. 2004. Public Rape: Representing Violation in Fiction and Film. London: Routledge.
Quinn, Jeanne Follansbee. 2001. The work of art: irony and identification in ‘Let Us Now Praise
Famous Men.’ Novel 34 (3): 338-368.
Sielke, Sabine. 2002. Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790-1990. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Wilder, Thornton. (1938). Our Town: A Play in Three Acts. New York: Coward McCann, Inc.
 See Adela Abella and Nathalie Zilkha, “Dogville: A Parable on Perversion,” Int J Psychoanal 2004; 85:1519–26; Per Aage Brandt, “The Political Philosophy of a Dogville: On Dogville by Lars von Trier,” P.O.V. Film and Politics (16); and Bo Figer, “A Dog Not Yet Buried – Or Dogville as a Political Manifesto,” P.O.V. Film and Politics (16).
 For a critique of rape
narratives in the service of colonial projects in India, see Jenny
Sharpe’s Allegories of Empire. A number of feminists have shown the
ways in which rape narratives have been used in the US context – see
Sabine Sielke and
Tanya Horeck for readings of American culture, film and
literature, and Saidiya Hartman for a deconstruction of the category of
as it applied in representations of plantation slavery.
 As Abella and Zilkha explain, the mise-en-scene ‘lures the spectators into believing they occupy an almost transcendental position in relation to the events’ (2004, p. 159).