October 15, 2009
Crush Videos, the Human Sacrifice Channel, and Other Religious Horribles
— Jeremy Biles
A previously obscure sect of sexual fetishism with enigmatic religious dimensions was exposed to the full light of the media last week, as the Supreme Court began deliberations on U.S. vs. Stevens. The case centers on a 1999 statute making it illegal to “create, sell, or possess ‘any visual or auditory depiction’ of ‘animal cruelty’ if the act of cruelty is itself illegal under either federal law or the law of the state in which the depiction occurred” (Lithwick). The Supreme Court is determining whether prohibiting such depictions would constitute an infringement on free speech rights.
The law was specifically designed to limit the production and distribution of crush videos, which depict the death-by-squashing of insects, arachnids, crustaceans, and other creatures, typically beneath a woman’s toe or high-heeled shoe. “Crush freaks,” as the enthusiasts refer to themselves, are sexually aroused by the sight of the explosion of the insect or other hapless beast.
Thanks, no doubt, to the ethically troubling nature of videos depicting animal execution, as well as the frisson afforded by a strong dose of erotic otherness, major news outlets as well as the blogosphere have been buzzing with reportage, commentary, and speculation about the case. The Supreme Court justices themselves provided much fodder for the media. Their discussion gave rise to a phantasmagoria of hypotheticals, or “First Amendment horribles,” as Justice Scalia dubbed them, referring to improbable scenarios posed by his colleagues – for example, Justice Alito: “What about people who…like to see human sacrifices? Suppose that is legally taking place someplace in the world. I mean, people here would probably love to see it. Live, pay per view, you know, on the Human Sacrifice Channel.”
The evocation of a “human sacrifice channel” elicited laughter in the court – but it should also call up the question of the possible use of videos of rituals as extensions of religious piety. While videos depicting animal cruelty or human sacrifice may be lawfully produced if they exhibit "bona fide artistic, educational, religious, governmental, judicial, or other purpose,” the justices have not yet considered the crush freaks’ practices or the videos depicting them as religious phenomena. With all due trepidation, and in the speculative spirit of our most eminent jurors, I want to propose that scholars of religion should do just that.
The data I’m using here may be exemplary or, on the other hand, exceptional. With that caveat in mind, consider Jeff “The Bug” Vilencia. Publisher of The American Journal of the Crush-Freaks and producer of such crush video classics as Smush, Vilencia characterizes his fetish in religious terms: He imagines being “flattened out of existence by my Goddess,” a woman in high heels. Within his erotic mise-en-scènes, he fantasizes identification with the crushed insect, becoming one with the minuscule victim in a “perturbing reconfiguration of ritual animal sacrifice” (Gates).
“All eroticism,” according to theorist of religion Georges Bataille, “has a sacramental character.” Eroticism is akin to religious sacrifice insofar as it effects a rupture in one’s sense of closed individuality. And eroticism, like sacrifice, calls forth a kind of violence – an experience of a little death that “jerks us out of a tenacious obsession with the lastingness of our…separate individuality,” thrusting us into an experience of sacred communication with the Other.
In the case of the crush freaks, this mystico-erotic communication brings to mind Rudolf Otto’s claim that “creature feeling” is a definitive characteristic of religious experience. Otto speaks of the “emotion of a creature, submerged and overwhelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures.” The self-depleting rupture achieved by Vilencia in sacred communication with his goddess dramatically evinces what Otto thought to be a quintessential religious sensation.
Might such sacred communication also be facilitated by the crush videos themselves? While the debate around the videos is currently being considered primarily in relation to the free-speech clause of the First Amendment, perhaps it should be reframed as a debate around the free exercise of religion. In the scenario I’m sketching here, crush videos might be interpreted as a form of what David Morgan terms visual piety, “the visual formation and practice of religious belief.”
All of this may sound as preposterous as it is disturbing – but religion abounds with the preposterous and the disturbing. And if historians of religion like Mircea Eliade and contemporary scholars like David Chidester are right, we would do well to pay attention to the ways in which religion erupts within ostensibly secular culture, often in disguised or even monstrous forms – for only by reconceiving the forms religion might take in light of such disturbances may we come to terms with what some would deem horrible.
Jeremy Biles holds a PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School and is author of the book Ecce Monstrum: Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form (Fordham, 2007).
For a fuller analysis of the ritual dimensions of the crush freak phenomenon, see Jeremy Biles, “I, Insect; or Georges Bataille and the Crush Freaks,” in the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory: http://www.jcrt.org/archives/05.3/index.shtml
Information concerning Jeff “The Bug” Vilencia has been drawn from Katharine Gates’s interviews with Vilencia in Deviant Desires.
The transcript of the Supreme Court hearing can be accessed via http://www.slate.com/id/2231644/.
For further reporting, see:
Dahlia Lithwick, “This Case Is a Dog,” in Slate: http://www.slate.com/id/2231644/
Ashby Jones, “The Human Sacrifice Channel? Crush Video Arguments Get Creative,” in The Wall Street Journal: http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2009/10/07/the-human-sacrifice-channel-crush-video-arguments-get-creative/