Lust of the Eye

The Act of Killing and Aesthetic Sensibility

Author: Sylvia Tiwon | University of California | Berkeley


The two questions I would like to bring to the table are these: do the aesthetics that shape The Act of Killing (TAOK) position us as spectators, and does this positioning, rather than offering possibilities for action, promise instead the solace of aesthetic distance. Toward the end of Dendam (Revenge), an early short story depicting an episode of mass violence during Indonesia's revolutionary period, Pramoedya Ananta Toer has his young narrator—a pemuda freshly recruited into a volunteer fighting unit—ponder the human capacity for violence. Having just witnessed a particularly gruesome killing of a man accused of spying on the revolutionaries, the pemuda sees spectators converging in the streets to watch the victim's body dragged by truck down the streets: "By the time the revolutionary procession had reached the main Djakarta–Tjirebon highway, the spectators had grown still more numerous. From each dark alleyway men and women emerged." Pramoedya then continues with this observation, "Lust always plays a role in every place. Including the lust of the eye." The identification of this hunger of the eye for spectacle is what transforms Dendam into an aesthetic project that contemplates the possibility for beauty in a world turned topsy turvy as much by the commodity as by revolution. The word dendam has a strong resonance closer to the sense of desire as yet unfulfilled (for revenge, for love or passion, as in, for example, dendam berahi (passion and/or lust), than to the substantive outcome of action. The word, of course, also serves as a useful link to TAOK, in which the endless deferral of dendam becomes a ghastly, spectral presence driving the film's central character and its narrative: "Balas dendam—belum ada kesempatan" (satisfy the desire for revenge—they haven't had the opportunity yet), the gangsters decide, and Anwar Congo thus appears haunted by the "whispered curse" (sumpah berbisik).

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© E.D. Starin