War, violence and death have become the organizing principle of governance and culture in the United States as we move into the second decade of the 21st century. Lacking a language for the social good, the very concept of the social as a space in which justice, equality, social protections and a responsibility to the other mediate everyday life is being refigured through a spectacle of violence and cruelty. Under such circumstances, ethical considerations and social costs are removed from market-driven policies and values just as images of human suffering are increasingly abstracted from not only their social and political contexts, but also the conditions that make such suffering possible. Moreover, as public issues collapse into privatized considerations, matters of agency, responsibility and ethics are now framed within the discourse of extreme individualism. Unexpected violence, aggression and the “‘masculine’ virtues of toughness, strength, decisiveness and determination … are accentuated,” along with the claims of vengeance, militarization and violence.(1) The collapse of the social and the formative culture that make human bonds possible is now outmatched by the rise of a Darwinian ethic of greed and self-interest in which violence, aggressiveness and sadism have become the primary metric for living and dying. As the social contract is replaced by social collapse, a culture of depravity has emerged in American society. The spectacle of violence permeates every aspect of the machinery of cultural production and screen culture – extending from television news and reality TV to the latest Hollywood fare. Of course, this is not new. What is new is that more and more people desire spectacles of high-intensity violence and images of death, mutilation and suffering and their desires should no longer be attributed to an individual aberration, but instead suggest an increasingly widespread social pathology.
Death and violence have become the mediating link between US domestic policy – the state’s treatment of its own citizens – and foreign policy, between the tedium of ever expanding workdays and the thrill of sadistic release. Disposable bodies now waste away in American prisons, schools and shelters just as they litter the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. America has become a permanent warfare state, with a deep investment in a cultural politics and the corollary cultural apparatuses that legitimate and sanctify its machinery of death. The American public’s fascination with violence and death is evident in the recent popular obsession with high-octane action films, along with the ever-expanding volume of vampire and zombie films, TV shows and books. We also see death-dealing and violent acts accrue popularity with Hollywood films such as the 2010 academy-award winning “The Hurt Locker,” in which the American bomb disposal expert, William James (Jeremy Renner), repeatedly puts himself at risk in the face of defusing various bomb threats – thus to highlight the filmmaker’s concern with a growing “addiction” to war. As Mark Featherstone points out, there is more represented here than the reckless behavior of immature and hyper-masculine soldiers. He writes, “James takes unnecessary risks and lives for the limit experience…. [H]e feels most alive when he is closest to death … When James … throws the bomb suit away and stands before the bomb with no protection, he puts himself at the mercy of the bomb, the embodiment of the death drive.”(2)
“The Hurt Locker” is only one of a number of serious films that address, if not mirror, a psychological state in which the production of a virulent masculinity now augurs both a pathological relationship with the body, pain and violence and a disdain for compassion, human rights and social justice. The death drive in American society has become one of its fundamental characteristics and, undoubtedly, its most disabling pathology. More than a trace of this mode of aggression and moral indifference now dominates contemporary American life. Marked by a virulent notion of hardness and aggressive masculinity, a culture of depravity has become commonplace in a society in which pain, humiliation and abuse are condensed into digestible spectacles of violence endlessly circulated through extreme sports, reality TV, video games, YouTube postings and proliferating forms of the new and old media. But the ideology of hardness and the economy of pleasure it justifies are also present in the material relations of power that have intensified since the Reagan presidency, when a shift in government policies first took place and set the stage for the emergence of an unchecked regime of torture and state violence under the Bush-Cheney regime. Conservative and liberal politicians alike now spend millions waging wars around the globe, funding the largest military state in the world, providing huge tax benefits to the ultra-rich and major corporations, and all the while draining public coffers, increasing the scale of human poverty and misery and eliminating all viable public spheres – whether they be the social state, public schools, public transportation, or any other aspect of a formative culture that addresses the needs of the common good.
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Mainstream politicians now call for cutbacks in public funding in order to address the pressing problems of the very deficit they not only created, but gladly embrace, since it provides an excuse either to drastically reduce funding for vital entitlements such as Medicare and early childhood education or to privatize public education, transportation, and other public services, while putting more money into the hands of the rich and powerful. The real deficit here is one of truth and morality. The politics of austerity has now become a discourse for eviscerating the social state and forcing upon cities, families and individuals previously unimaginable levels of precarity, suffering and insecurity. As Rania Khalek points out, conservatives want to “exploit the budget crisis in order to starve government…. The truth is that the economic crisis, sparked by decades of deregulation and greedy financial forms, caused high levels of unemployment that dramatically reduced state and local tax revenues. Add to that years of tax cuts for the wealthy and decades of corporate tax-dodging and you’ve got yourself a budget crisis.”(3) The discourse of “deficit porn” now justifies the shift in public policy and state funding further away from providing social protections and safeguarding civil liberties toward the establishment of legislative programs intent on promoting shared fears and increasing disciplinary modes of governance that rely on the criminalization of social problems.(4)
The broader cultural turn toward the death drive and the strange economy of desire it produces is also evident in the emergence of a culture of depravity in which the American public appears more and more amenable to deriving pleasure from images that portray gratuitous violence and calamity. As mentioned above, exaggerated violence now rules screen culture. The public pedagogy of entertainment includes extreme images of violence, human suffering and torture splashed across giant movie screens, some in 3D, offering viewers every imaginable portrayal of violent acts, each more shocking and brutal than the last. The growing taste for sadism can be seen in the recent fascination on the part of the media with Peter Moskos’ book “In Defense of Flogging,” in which the author seriously proposes that prisoners be given a choice between a standard sentence and a number of lashes administered in public.(5) In the name of reform, Moskos argues, without any irony, that public flogging is more honest and a sure-fire way of reducing the prison population. Not only is this book being given massive air time in the mainstream media, but its advocacy of corporal punishment and flogging is treated as if it is a legitimate proposal for reform. Mind-crushing punishment is presented as the only choice left for prisoners outside of serving their sentences. Moreover, this medieval type of punishment inflicts pain on the body as part of a public spectacle. Moskos seems to miss how the legacy of slavery informs his proposal, given that flogging was one of the preferred punishments handed out to slaves and that 70 percent of all current prisoners in the United States are people of color. Surely, the next step will be a reality TV franchise in which millions tune in to watch public floggings. This is not merely barbarism parading as reform – it is also a blatant indicator of the degree to which sadism and the infatuation with violence have become normalized in a society that seems to take delight in dehumanizing itself.
As the social is devalued along with rationality, ethics and any vestige of democracy, spectacles of violence and brutality now merge into forms of collective pleasure that constitute what I believe is an important and new symbiosis among visual pleasure, violence and suffering. As I have suggested, taking pleasure in violence can no longer be reduced to a matter of individual pathology, but registers a larger economy of pleasure across the broader culture and social landscape. The consumption of images of human pain as a matter of personal pleasure and taste has given way to representations of human suffering, humiliation and death that circulate across the culture as part of the collective indulgence in gross spectacles that persist in being called entertainment, news and knowledge sharing. What is more, privatized pleasures and violence translate increasingly into forms of structural violence that are mobilized by the death drive and use the spectacles of violence to generate a source of gratification and intense socially experienced pleasure. Amplified sadism and voyeurism are now characteristic of a contemporary society that has narrowed the range of social expression and values to the receipt of instant gratification and the pursuit of pleasure as one of its sole imperatives. As images of degradation and human suffering become more palatable and pleasurable, the body no longer becomes the privileged space of agency, but “the location of violence, crime and social pathology.”(6) Americans now find themselves in the midst of a brutal authoritarianism in which freedom is reduced to the narrow realm of individual needs, narcissistic pleasures and the removal of all forms of social responsibility, particularly those imposed by the government. Sovereignty and governance, under the guise of “personal choice,” are instead produced and defined by the market and the power of large corporations and financial institutions. As decadence and despair are normalized in the wider culture, people are increasingly exploited for their pleasure quotient, while any viable notion of the social is subordinated to the violence of a deregulated market economy and its ongoing production of a culture of cruelty.(7) For all intents and purposes, politics as a matter of public governance is dead in the United States.
How else to explain the insistent demand by many conservative and liberal pundits and the American public at large that the government release the grisly images of Osama bin Laden’s corpse, even though the fact of his assassination was never in doubt? How might we understand the growing support among the American populace for state-sanctioned torture and the rising indifference to images which reveal its horrible injustices? Just as torture is sanctioned by the state and becomes normalized for many Americans, the spectacle of violence spreads through the culture with ever-greater intensity. Whatever bleeds – now gratuitously and luxuriously – brings in box office profits and dominates media headlines, despite being often presented without any viable context for making sense of the imagery, or any critical commentary that might undercut or rupture the pleasure viewers are invited to derive from such images. Representations of violence and human tragedy now merge seamlessly with neoliberalism’s culture of depravity in which risk and mayhem reinforce shared fears rather than shared responsibilities and a Hobbesian war of all against all becomes the organizing principle for structuring a vast array of institutions and social relations.
As corporate capitalism translates into corporate fascism, prominent politicians such as Sarah Palin, radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and media monopoly moguls such as those who deliver Fox News repeatedly deploy the vocabulary of violence to attack the social state, labor unions, immigrants, young people, teachers and public-service employees. At the same time, the depravity of aesthetics gains popular currency in organs of the dominant media that reproduce an endless stream of denigrating images and narratives of people constrained by the forces of poverty, racism and disability. Their pain and suffering now become a source of delight for late-night comics, radio talk show hosts and TV programs that provide ample narratives and images of poor families, individuals and communities who become fodder for the “poverty porn” industry.(8) Programs such as the reality TV series “Jersey Shore,” the syndicated tabloid TV talk show series “The Jerry Springer Show” (and its endless imitators) and “The Biggest Loser” all exemplify what Gerry Mooney and Lynn Hancock claim is a massive “assault on people experiencing poverty [seizing] on any example of ‘dysfunctionality’ in poor working class communities … [exhibiting] expressions of middle-class fears and distrust, [while] also [displaying] a fascination with poverty and the supposedly deviant lifestyles of those affected – where viewers of moral outrage are encouraged to find the worst and weakest moments of people’s lives also funny and entertaining.”(9) Disconnected from any moral criteria, the search for ever more intense levels of sensation and excitation become the pedagogical and performative force par excellence in shaping the world of entertainment. Within this context, the pleasure of humiliation and violence is maximized and cruelty is elevated to a structuring principle of society.
What has led to this immunity and insensitivity to cruelty and prurient images of violence? Part of this process is due to the fact that the American public is bombarded by an unprecedented “huge volume of exposure to … images of human suffering.”(10) As Zygmunt Bauman argues, there are social costs that come with this immersion of the culture in staged violence. One consequence is that “the sheer numbers and monotony of images may have a ‘wearing off’ impact [and] to stave off the ‘viewing fatigue,’ they must be increasingly gory, shocking and otherwise ‘inventive’ to arouse any sentiments at all or indeed draw attention. The level of ‘familiar’ violence, below which the cruelty of cruel acts escapes attention, is constantly rising.”(11) Hyper-violence and spectacular representations of cruelty disrupt and block our ability to respond politically and ethically to the violence as it’s actually happening on the ground. In this instance, unfamiliar violence such as extreme images of torture and death becomes banally familiar, while familiar violence that occurs daily is barely recognized, becoming, if not boring, then relegated to the realm of the unnoticeable and unnoticed. An increasing volume of violence is pumped into the culture as yesterday’s spine-chilling and nerve-wrenching violence loses its shock value. As the need for more intense images of violence accumulates, the moral indifference and desensitization to violence grow, while matters of cruelty and suffering are offered up as fodder for sports, entertainment, news media, and other outlets for seeking pleasure.
Under the regime of neoliberal policies, relations and values, profit-making becomes the only legitimate mode of exchange; private interests replace public concerns; and unbridled individualism infects a society in which the vocabulary of fear, competition, war and punishment governs existing relationships. Within an economy of pleasure and commodification, freedom is subsumed by a calculated deficit that reduces agency to a regressive infantilism and degraded forms of gratification. What Leo Lowenthal called “the atomization of the individual” bespeaks a figure now terrorized by other human beings and reduced to living “in a state of stupor, in a moral coma.”(12) This type of depoliticized inward thinking – with its repudiation of the obligations of shared sociality, disengagement from moral responsibility and outright disdain for those who are disadvantaged by virtue of being poor, young or elderly – does more than fuel the harsh, militarized and ultra-masculine logic of the news and entertainment sector. This “atomization of the individual” also elevates death over life, selfishness over compassion and economics over politics. The spectrum of disdain and vulnerability has been extended at the current historical moment to contempt for life itself. Life reduced to “bare life” and the vulnerability it produces elicits imperviousness at best and a new kind of pleasure at worst. Precarity, uncertainty and misfortune no longer evoke compassion but disdain, while simultaneously opening up a space in which vulnerability offers a pretext for forms of pleasure that reinforce a culture of cruelty.(13) But even more so, it produces a kind of dysfunctional silence in American society in the face of widespread hardship and suffering – virtually wiping out society’s collective memories of moral decency and mutuality.
The merging of violence and pleasure has been on full display throughout American history, though images of such depravities have often been hidden. Exceptions can be found in the history of racism and the startling and disturbing images of the public lynching of African-Americans, the brutal murder of Emmett Till and the mass killings at My Lai depicted in photographs of American soldiers relaxing and smiling after the carnage. More recently, a number of photographs have once again surfaced which display grotesque acts of violence and murder by a select group of American soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. The images released by Rolling Stone magazine in the United States focused on the murderous actions of 12 US soldiers, who decided to kill Afghan civilians allegedly for sport. They used the moniker “The Kill Team” to refer to themselves, aptly registering both the group’s motivation and its monstrous actions. In the five months during which these soldiers went on a murderous rampage in Kandahar Province, writes one reporter, “they engaged in routine substance abuse and brutality toward Afghan locals that led to four premeditated murders of innocent civilians, the ritual mutilation of corpses (some of the soldiers reportedly severed fingers from their victims to keep as trophies) and the snapping of celebratory photographs alongside the deceased as if they were bagged deer.”(14) The soldiers’ actions exhibited their immersion in a death-driven culture that differs only in degree from the one I have been documenting throughout this article. Their actions were neither isolated nor individualized, but reflect their evident belief that killing for sport in such a culture could take place with impunity. Proudly bearing the title “Kill Team” registers “the pure depravity of the alleged crimes.”(15) In one particularly disturbing photo celebrating a kill, one of the soldiers, Jeremy Morlock, is shown posing with the body of Gul Mudin, a 15-year-old Afghan boy. With a grin on his face and a thumbs-up sign, Morlock is kneeling on the ground next to Mudin’s bloody and half-naked corpse, grabbing a handful of hair to lift up his bloodied face.
The platoon’s squad leader, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, was so pleased with the kill that he desecrated the young boy’s dead body by severing one of his fingers. Mark Boal quotes one soldier’s account of the incident: “‘It was like another day at the office for him’…. Gibbs started ‘messing around with the kid, moving his arms and mouth and acting like the kid was talking.'” Boal adds, “Then, using a pair of razor-sharp medic’s shears, [Gibbs] reportedly sliced off the dead boy’s pinky finger and gave it to [the soldier], as a trophy for killing his first Afghan.”(16) Gibbs’ instinct for barbarism appears utterly ruthless and lacking in any sense of ethical consideration or self-reflection – to say nothing of the political and social costs incurred by the US-led mission. The staff sergeant was so intent on killing Afghan civilians that he actually boasted about it, telling one soldier, “Come down to the line and we’ll find someone to kill.”(17) Revealing the depth of his inhumanity, Gibbs reportedly told his soldiers that all Afghans were savages, and talked to his squad about how they might be inventive in killing civilians. In one almost unbelievable scenario, the soldiers considered throwing “candy out of a Stryker vehicle as they drove through a village and shoot[ing] the children who came running to pick up the sweets. According to one soldier, they also talked about a second scenario in which they ‘would throw candy out in front and in the rear of the Stryker; the Stryker would then run the children over.'”(18)
Unlike the Abu Ghraib prison photos that were designed to humiliate detainees, the “Kill Team” photos suggest a deeper depravity, an intense pleasure in acts of violence that are preplanned and carried out with no impending threat, culminating in the sadistic collection of body parts of the slain victims as trophies. The “Kill Team” was after more than humiliation and the objectification of the other; it harbored a deep desire to feel intense excitement through pathological acts of murder and then captured the savagery in photos that served as mementos, so they could revisit and experience once again the delight that comes with descending into the sordid pornographic hell that connects violence, pleasure and death. The smiles on the faces of the young soldiers as they posed among their trophy killings are not the snapshots of privatized violence, but images of sadism that are symptoms of a social pathology in which shared pleasure in violence is now commonplace. As my colleague David L. Clark points out, the smiles on the faces of these soldiers suggest something perverse and alarming. He writes, “This isn’t Hannibal Lecter, after all, but G.I. Joe [and these photos appear as] symptomatic evidence of a certain public enjoyment of violence for the sake of violence, i.e., not the smile of shared pleasures between intimates (one form of the everyday), but a smile that marks a broader acceptance and affirmation of cruelty, killing for sport. Those smiles register a knowing pleasure in that violence and say that it is okay to kill and okay to take pleasure in that killing.”(19)
The “Kill Team” photographs are important because they signify a new register of what can be called a failed sociality. In this instance, the social does not disappear as much as it is overwritten by a sociality of shared violence – a sociality marked not by the injurious violence of the lone sociopath, but instead by a growing army of sociopaths. The “Kill Team” photographs offer a glimpse into a larger set of social conditions in a winner-take-all society in which it becomes difficult to imagine pleasure in any other terms except through the spectacle of violence buttressed by a market-driven culture and dominated by a survivalist ethic. What is it about these photos that reveals the smear of the pornographic, a titillation grounded in maximizing the pleasure of violence? What are the political, economic and social forces bearing down on American society that so easily undercut its potential to raise critical questions about war, violence, morality and human suffering? What forms of responsibility and what pedagogical strategies does one invoke in the face of a society that feeds off spectacles of violence and cruelty? What forms of witnessing and education might be called into play in which the feelings of pleasure mobilized by images of human suffering can be used as “a catalyst for critical inquiry and deep thought?”(20) Rather than being reduced to a mechanism for the cathartic release of pleasure, a society saturated in the claims of violence, war, aggression and poisonous modes of masculinity must serve as an indictment, a source of memory and evidence of the need to imagine otherwise.
In contrast to the “Kill Team” photos, we have seen images from Libya, Syria and Iran where the murder of young students and other protesters by state militia thugs have been captured on video and circulated the world over. Such images become a pedagogical tool, a critical mode of public pedagogy capable of forms of witnessing that allow people to imagine the unimaginable. What is emancipatory about these images, as Georges Didi-Huberman points out in a different context, is that they work to refuse what he calls the “disimagination machine”; that is, these are images that are “images in spite of all” – bearing witness to a different and critical sense of remembering, agency, ethics and collective resistance.(21) These images have ignited massive collective protests against repressive governments. Such images did not feed the basest of collective desires and pleasurable fantasies detached from any real consequences. To the contrary, such images of abuse and suffering have inflamed a society in which a formative culture exists that enables people to connect emotional investments and desires to a politics in which unthinkable acts of violence are confronted as part of a larger “commitment to political accountability, community and the importance of positive affect for both belonging and change.”(22)
America has lost the formative culture that would allow us to contest, challenge and transform the prevailing culture of unbridled individualism, consumerism, militarism and desire for instant pleasure. Both major political parties now impose harsh penalties on the poor, young people, the elderly, immigrants, and other groups considered disposable. We are on the brink of an authoritarianism in which war and violence not only cause unbearable hardship and suffering for the vast majority of the American people, but also produce a larger social pathology in which the actions of the “Kill Team” soldiers who sought out pleasure in the most vile and grotesque acts of violence are symptomatic of something that is becoming normalized and commonplace in American society. This is a violence being waged against democracy and the public good, one that feeds on mobilization of desires and collective pleasures in the face of the suffering of others.
2. Mark Featherstone, “The Hurt Locker: What is the Death Drive?” Sociology and Criminology at Keele University – Blogspot (February 25, 2010). Online here.
3. Rania Khalek, “Death by Budget Cut: Why Conservatives and Some Dems Have Blood on their Hands,” AlterNet (June 13, 2011). Online here.
8. I have taken the term “poverty porn” from Gerry Mooney and Lynn Hancock, “Poverty Porn and the Broken Society,” Variant 39/40 (Winter 2010). Online here.
14. Jim Frederick, “Anatomy of a War Crime: Behind the Enabling of the ‘Kill Team,'” Time (March 29, 2011). Online here.
16. Mark Boal, “The Kill Team,” Rolling Stone, (March 27, 2011). Online here.