I reread Richard Hofstadter’s remarkable essay “Reflections on American Violence” this morning. The essay was first published as “The Future of American Violence” in Harper’s in April of 1970 and as the introduction to American Violence: A Documentary History, a book edited by Hofstadter and Michael Wallace. You can read the whole thing at The Baffler. First three paragraphs:
The United States, it has been said, has a history but not a tradition of domestic violence. A history, because violence has been frequent, voluminous, almost commonplace in our past. But not precisely a tradition, for two reasons: First, our violence lacks both an ideological and a geographical center; it lacks cohesion; it has been too various, diffuse, and spontaneous to be forged into a single, sustained, inveterate hatred shared by entire social classes. Second, we have a remarkable lack of memory where violence is concerned and have left most of our excesses a part of our buried history. . . .
For historians violence is a difficult subject, diffuse and hard to cope with. It is committed by isolated individuals, by small groups, and by large mobs; it is directed against individuals and crowds alike; it is undertaken for a variety of purposes (and at times for no discernible rational purpose at all), and in a variety of ways ranging from assassinations and murders to lynchings, duels, brawls, feuds, and riots; it stems from criminal intent and from political idealism, from antagonisms that are entirely personal and from antagonisms of large social consequence. Hence it has been hard to conceive of violence as a subject at all. . . .
Today we are not only aware of our own violence; we are frightened by it. We are now quite ready to see that there is far more violence in our national heritage than our proud, sometimes smug, national self-image admits of. Our violence frightens us, as it frightens others, because in our singular position uncontrolled domestic violence coincides with unparalleled national power, and thus takes on a special significance for the world. It is not only shocking but dangerous for a primary world power to lose three of its most important and valuable public leaders within a few years, and with them to lose an immeasurable part of its political poise. Violence in Colombia or Guatemala is of life-or-death concern to Colombians and Guatemalans. Violence in the United States has become of life-or-death concern to everyone. It is, again, disturbing to many Americans that the recent outbreaks coincided with the most sustained economic boom we have ever had. Although the American creed has been built upon the efficacy of riches, it has now become alarmingly clear that some of our social discontents, instead of being relieved by prosperity, are exacerbated by it. Although Americans are richer than ever, they have not found a way to buy themselves out of trouble.
The spectacle obliterates the boundaries between self and world by crushing the self besieged by the presence-absence of the world. It also obliterates the boundaries between true and false by repressing all directly lived truth beneath the real presence of the falsehood maintained by the organization of appearances. Individuals who passively accept their subjection to an alien everyday reality are thus driven toward a madness that reacts to this fate by resorting to illusory magical techniques. The essence of this pseudoresponse to an unanswerable communication is the acceptance and consumption of commodities. The consumer’s compulsion to imitate is a truly infantile need, conditioned by all the aspects of his fundamental dispossession. As Gabel puts it in describing a quite different level of pathology, “the abnormal need for representation compensates for an agonizing feeling of being at the margin of existence.”
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (section 219).
(From The World turned upside down, or, No news, and strange news (1820) by J. Kendrew. More/via.)
The New Yorker has published “The Other Place,” a new short story from Mary Gaitskill. A taste–
My son, Douglas, loves to play with toy guns. He is thirteen. He loves video games in which people get killed. He loves violence on TV, especially if it’s funny. How did this happen? The way everything does, of course. One thing follows another, naturally.
Naturally, he looks like me: shorter than average, with a fine build, hazel eyes, and light-brown hair. Like me, he has a speech impediment and a condition called “essential tremor” that causes involuntary hand movements, which make him look more fragile than he is. He hates reading, but he is bright. He is interested in crows because he heard on a nature show that they are one of the only species that are more intelligent than they need to be to survive. He does beautiful, precise drawings of crows.
Mostly, though, he draws pictures of men holding guns. Or men hanging from nooses. Or men cutting up other men with chainsaws—in these pictures there are no faces, just figures holding chainsaws and figures being cut in two, with blood spraying out.
My wife, Marla, says that this is fine, as long as we balance it out with other things—family dinners, discussions of current events, sports, exposure to art and nature. But I don’t know. Douglas and I were sitting together in the living room last week, half watching the TV and checking e-mail, when an advertisement for a movie flashed across the screen: it was called “Captivity” and the ad showed a terrified blond girl in a cage, a tear running down her face. Doug didn’t speak or move. But I could feel his fascination, the suddenly deepening quality of it. And I don’t doubt that he could feel mine. We sat there and felt it together.
And then she was there, the woman in the car. In the room with my son, her black hair, her hard laugh, the wrinkled skin under her hard eyes, the sudden blood filling the white of her blue eye. There was excited music on the TV and then the ad ended. My son’s attention went elsewhere; she lingered.
Slavoj Žižek describes Violence as “six sideways glances” examining how our preoccupation with subjective violence (that is, the personal, material violence that we can see so easily in crime, racism, etc.) masks and occludes our understanding of the systemic and symbolic violence that underwrites our political, economic, and cultural hierarchies. Žižek believes that a dispassionate “step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and promote tolerance,” and that a rampant “pseudo-urgency” to act instead of think currently (detrimentally) infects liberal humanitarian efforts to help others. This is where the fun comes in. Žižek delights here in pointing out all the ways in which we fool ourselves, all the ways in which we believe we’ve gained some kind of moral edge through our beliefs and actions.
I use the words “fun” and “delight” above for a reason: Violence is fun and a delight to read. Žižek employs a rapid, discursive method, pulling examples from contemporary politics, psychoanalysis, films, poetry, history, jokes, famous apocryphal anecdotes, and just about every other source you can think of to illustrate his points. And while it would be disingenuous to suggest that it doesn’t help to have some working knowledge of the philosophical tradition and counter-traditions to best appreciate Violence, Žižek writes for a larger audience than the academy. Yet, even when he’s quoting Elton John on religion or performing a Nietzschean reading of Children of Men, Žižek’s dalliances with pop culture always occur within the gravest of backdrops. Within each of Violence‘s six chapters, there’s a profound concern for not only the Big Questions but also the big events: Žižek frequently returns to the Iraq War, the 9/11 attacks, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as major points of consideration. This concern for contemporary events, and the materiality of contemporary events, is particularly refreshing in a work of contemporary philosophy. Undoubtedly some will pigeonhole Žižek in the deconstructionist-psychoanalytical-post-modernist camp (as if it were an insult, of course)–he clearly has a Marxist streak and a penchant for Lacanian terminology. Yet, unlike many of the writers of this philosophical counter-tradition, Žižek writes in a very clear, lucid manner. There’s also a great sense of humor here, as well as any number of beautiful articulations, like this description of the “dignity and courage” of atheism:
[A]theists strive to formulate the message of joy which comes not from escaping reality, but from accepting it and creatively finding one’s place in it. What makes this materialist tradition unique is the way it combines the humble awareness that we are not masters of the universe, but just a part of a much larger whole exposed to contingent twists of fate, with a readiness to accept the heavy burden of responsibility for what we make out of our lives. With the threat of unpredictable catastrophe looming from all sides, isn’t this an attitude needed more than ever in our own times?
I’m inclined to answer, “Yes.” Highly recommended.
Violence, part of the new BIG IDEAS // small books series from Picador Books, is available August 1st.