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2014 Overview: Exceptional Violence

While traversing the vast desert spaces of southern Idaho recently, I listened to a podcast* discussing the MPAA Rating system. The podcasters pointed out that in 2007 two movies were released that earned the same R-rating. One was a quiet, consciously quirky music-filled story of unconsummated love featuring a mopey musician, and the other focused on people chained together with eyes or mouth sewn shut, locked in various improbable and pornographic torture devices with a plot driven by ad absurdum versions of simplistic moral dilemmas. I only watched Once, and avoided Saw IV.

I do, however, enjoy Game of Thrones, and having watched (and squirmed) as the bloodshed mounts, I keep wondering how to explain the obsession with vivid representations of violence. Especially when the “Islamic State” is beheading anyone who disagrees with them in northern Iraq, Hamas and Israel are doing their best to slaughter each other, and suicides of the rich and famous continue to drive the news cycle. One hundred years ago this month modernity was thrown into industrial warfare; and while there hasn’t been war on that scale for 70 years, the graphic and immersive depictions of death and dismemberment are surely higher than at any time in the past. Despite the claims of Stephen Pinker, we, the nominally “civilized”, crave blood. Why? As the podcast pointed out, we (broadly speaking, that “we” means “US Americans”) are more ready to let our children consume images of violence than of sexuality, profanity, or filth—violence is not a part of what is abject in our society.

I am interested in exploring individual representations of violence, mostly in the texts of current TV and video games, but also literature and art, to understand this trend. Perhaps there will be some sort of taxonomy of violence that emerges. Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida have commented on this, and Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer, also revolves around violence. I will also engage with Hannah Arendt, and readers can expect an amateur but enthusiastic spattering of classical philosophy. I hope to go beyond unthinking dismissal of representations of violence to see the phenomena as it is more than as it should be.

In a wide-open and sunbaked country, just as at sea, death feels near at hand. A few days without water would be the end. For Cormac McCarthy (and many today), such resource poverty almost always spells violence; for many ancients it underlay an injunction to welcome the inviolate stranger in hospitality. Driving across Idaho, I kept thinking of the blood smeared season’s end of Game of Thrones, and my own experience of blood on my hands as a hunter. How was I to read this show, in this world? I’ll take up that question in my upcoming post.

-Daniel Clausen

*Stuff You Should Know, for the curious.


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