Insufficient Evidence: The Historical Question of Snuff

Snuff, the purported onscreen murder of a woman committed with intent to distribute for profit, describes an impossible object within the parameters of Film and Media Studies. Yet, anti-porn feminist and legal discourses have used the term in parasitical ways to mobilize new definitions of misogyny, sexual violence, and criminality. While intention remains a crucial component in the definition of snuff, Film and Media Studies, as well as the humanities generally, have problematized the notion of authorial intent. These divergent theoretical aims lend snuff its paradoxical quality: while it may be conceptualized and even realized, it eludes substantiation.  It cannot evidence its own existence. Nonetheless, non-media discourses have transported snuff to their own sites in attempts to solve political questions about responsibility, agency, criminal intent, pleasure, and ethics. Snuff functions as an analytic myth, taking shape only in the outline of its absence, an outline formed by an apparatus of other texts: investigations, legal notes, artifacts, news stories, and political commentaries.

An online video surfaced in May 2012, supposedly depicting former Canadian porn star Luka Magnotta dismembering, eating, and having sex with his former lover. With conversations swirling about distributed content, mash-ups, online fan cultures, and authorship in so-called “participatory” media, doubts emerge about distributed guilt and what constitutes the original snuff text. The video and its alleged circumstances offer a site for projecting transdiscursive concerns about digital remix and snuff’s investigatory emphasis on dilemmas of identity, disappearance, and distributed intent. I historicize snuff as an epistemological object by exploring its shifting etymology, political deployment, and representation in media. Snuff’s history is the history of its hermeneutic paradigm, a double history of conjectural evidence in which definitions of snuff are ontological performances that repeatedly revise the metaphysics of snuff as they assert it.


Abby Hinsman, Film and Media Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara