At the start of Great Expectations, Pip has an encounter with an escaped convict, Magwitch, a very violent man. Throughout No Country for Old Men, violence appears and reappears as if a ghost, a haunting, and at the end the Sheriff sits with this thoughts for a lengthy reflection on our own complicity in violence and destruction.

In Raymond Chandler and in Hammett, violence drives the narrative. Violence and crime. Transgressive acts, lies, betrayls. In Shakespeare, its hard to keep count of the bodies. How many are left on stage in Hamlet?

There seems to be an outrage now… of a liberal flavor…about depictions of violence in movies and TV.

There is also an outcry about violence in video games. I think there are a few points to be made about all this and it links up to a semi-seperate topic I get to below. First, the problem is never as simple as gun control advocates or those who want to censor violence in film and TV make it out to be.

There are close to three hundred million guns in the USA already. So, just as a starting point, even if you stopped production of all weapons in the US today, there are still enough to kill everyone several times over. The problem is eight times greater that guns are in the hands of the police. You should be far more afraid of cops. When the gun control people speak of getting rid of assault weapons, they don’t mean for the police. The cops keep getting more and more sophisticated guns and weaponry. More and better guns for the police. I think if you really wanted to stop people getting shot, you would stop cops from having guns along with everyone else.

Or, we could talk about the defense industry. Which is far and away the biggest industry in the United States. Prostitution is second, and packaging third (for the record). Why does nobody argue the US stop production of missiles and drones? (Domestic police departments are buying as many drones as can be made).

The reality is that the problem is not violence in narrative. In fact, there are reasons for the durability of crime fiction and film. It links to our own sense of estrangement, our own psychic formation, our Oedipal drama re-created over and over and over. That is healthy, actually. The problem is stupidity. The problem is the destruction of public education, and a lowering of literacy. The problem is the mechanisms of control exerted by the state. The problem is social domination. One does not read Dickens and pull back in revulsion at the violence. One doesn’t do that with McCarthy either, or Melville or Chandler or even an Iceberg Slim. One feels the nausea of stupidity however when one watches Bruce Willis and Arnold and Tarrentino. It’s not the pointless splatterings of blood in Die Stupid #6, its the horror of the extreme banality, the dishonesty, and the shamelessly reactionary worship of state power. That is where the digust and revulsion come from.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Video games are even lower on the spectrum of stupid. There are no doubt additional elements at work with video games, that exceed the scope of this posting. This, however, leads to questions about the effects of sustained long term exposure to only screen image. The aspergers-like disconnect seen in so many computer geeks. Silicon Valley, I’m told, has a very high incidence of childhood aspergers. The corporate product is manufactured with certain narrow goals in mind– i.e. MAKE MONEY. Those who toil in the prestige strata of the culture industry will deny this to their death, will froth at the mouth and reach a level of hysteria in defense of an imagined autonomy in what they do. I would argue that Lena Dunham or Tarantino or Bigelow or Speilberg or Michael Bay are who should cause us the most concern. There is depiction of violence and there is depiction of violence. The endless stream of cop franchise TV, where every single episode is built around a default adoration of authority and a demonizing of the poor, especially black and brown youth, is destructive not because people get shot but because there is an ideological context for that violence. How many of the Columbine style shooters have dressed up in kevlar vests and other SWAT accountrements, as they ventured forth to cause mayham?

I think its useful to look at the adumbrated narratives of these cop shows, for example, as more violent in a sense (even if there is almost no violence depicted) than say Rubens or Goya’s paintings of Saturn devouring his son. Or the violence in a film such as Bullhead or A Prophet. The violence in Dumont’s Flanders is highly disturbing, but does one really think THIS is the reason a generation of youth in the US now seem utterly cut off from their feelings? Or is it that Adam Sandler and Lena Dunham and Tarantino, by virtue of their dishonesty, their masked corruption of truth, their narrow and privileged world view are really much more damaging?

Gaza, checkpoint

The corporate world does nothing by accident. These corporations make calculated decisions, and those decisions are geared to profit, but also, by the nature of those making the decisions, to reflect the values of a rich white patriarchal elite. The mainstream media has heaped applause and adulation upon Zero Dark Thirty. Now, never mind these are pretty dumb people to begin with, but what is more worth pondering is the fact that such a film comes along at this precise moment, distilling thirty or forty years of progressively more fascistic storytelling. Zero Dark Thirty is the quintessential product of the Pentagon — a uber patriotic fairy tale that espouses not just murder, not just execution, but torture. Torture was once the provence of the villains. You knew a villain by his black Stetson, or by the fact he tortured people. The narratives of the typical network cop shows are all set against a white supremicist backdrop: even the anti-hero products such as Breaking Bad. The only show I can think of, since Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker that captures something truthful about the working class is The Killing (which was, not surprisingly based on a Danish show). The typical show establishes a binary world view of good guys and bad guys. They are sort of primitive morality tales where the masses are dangerous. Those “good families” or “good individuals” are always highly domesticated, neutered, conformist, examples of compliance. And whatever exceptions you can find, and I am sure one can, it hardly matters because the backdrop is clearly etched in stark relief: the state, the military, the police, are GOOD. Sometimes a bad person will be part of the state, and the plot then revolves around the rooting out of this “bad apple” the better to restore stability and equilibrium. One of the knee jerk liberal responses to events such as Sandy Hook is to coalesce around a sort of PTA level group demand for sanitizing of product. Because the aesthetic sensibility of today’s average American is so degraded, the vision called for is a sort of after school special level story of moral redemption and, again, re-stabilizing the white patriarchal world view. The do-gooder trope, the ‘lets save dark misguided people from their terrible situation’. The last thing one is ever going to see on network TV is narrative suggesting what is actually wrong is the system.

Playground, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

This is true of period pieces, too. The recent Tom Fontana project, “Copper” set 1880 New York City might as well have been set in today’s Van Nuys or Red Hook. Like other Fontana shows, this reeked of DUMB. Nothing of the fascinating history of New York City was deemed important, but rather a sort of cartoon titillation with breasts, soft core kiddie porn, and yes, guns. Network news scrubs clean the realities of war. You don’t see dead bodies in Iraq, or the brutality of Gaza checkpoints. You don’t see police beatings or shootings of black youth, or the sordid treatment of female prisoners in today’s privitized prisons. It’s interesting that one of the escape valves for this contradiction is the typical news magazine “special” about, say, prison conditions. Usually the message of these documentaries is to reinforce the inherent violence of the poor. Coporations dont make mistakes. It’s not even a conscious decision, but rather the expression of the beliefs of those in charge of corporate ‘image’.

The idiocy of today’s cultural industry product is stunning if you step back a moment and examine it. Stereotypes prevail….jewish sterotypes, black sterotypes, Latino sterotypes, Asian sterotypes. The more lip service is paid, the more pernicious the method. Oh, you want “real” gay characters? Ok, no problem. Oh, you want more women in leading roles? No problem, here is Lena Dunham. The fact that “Girls” is a horrid misogynist bit of banality is never examined. This speaks to the inability of a populace to actually “read” the narrative. In a media system that constantly denigrates theory, and political theory in particular, it’s not surprising that so little discimination is exercised by viewers. A steady diet of state department propaganda for fifty years, coupled to ever more sophisticated marketing skills, has rendered the public truely sub-literate. Do those flying bodies and exploding heads and gun shot corpses register as in anyway real people? No, and in a sense the ultimate exempler of this simulacra world of unreality is Quentin Tarantino. Unabashedly ignorant and neurotic, proudly unconcerned with actual history or reality, Tarantino is the poster child for vapid inane wholesale violence and racism. The post modern (bastardized) embrace of this runs right alongside the liberal white embrace of anything which reinforces their sense of privilege.

So…the US manufactures more weapons than any country on earth. The US has more people in prison than any country on earth, both per capita and real. The US spends more money on defense than any country on earth. The US military industrial complex extends into almost every corner of life. This includes academia. According to a report by the Association of American Universities (AAU) 350 colleges and universities conduct Pentagon funded research projects. The Department of Defense (DoD) is the third largest funder of research …only slightly behind the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation. In areas such as metallurgy and electronics, they lead with percentages are around 65% of all funding. There are myriad side-bar effects to this incursion into academia; the DoD (according to Chalmers Johnson) “managed to bar recruiters for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the military because qualified students who wish to serve are rejected if they are openly gay or lesbian”. Such is Harvard’s dependency on Pentagon and DoD funding, that it caved in on this issue and such is the ever lessening autonomy of academic life. The NSA also funds various academic projects…mostly in Crytptology and electronic surveillance.

Today’s cultural landscape is increasingly shaped by the military. Schools cooperate on curricula and not just research agendas. The corporate cultural landscape is intwined at every level with the DoD and Pentagon, and it global. Not just Lockheed and AT&T, but Toyota (1.6 million from the Pentagon in 2006), Volkswagon (1.9 million), and Google, Apple, and on down to Oakley sunglasses and even Krispy Kreme donuts. What do those hundreds of thousands of military personel eat on those thousands of bases around the globe? Ask McDonalds, Coca Cola, Budweiser, Nestle, Kraft, and Procter & Gamble, and a host of others. All have very lucrative contracts with the DoD. After a hard shift directing drone terror attacks, what better way to unwind then a Vanilla Latte at the Starbucks on Bagram Air Force base (and dozens of others…in fact Starbucks provides 1,400 drinks a day to soldiers on various bases).

Or take Apple…that bastion of counter cultural branding, whose contract with the US Navy was to deliver special computers to assist in selecting targets for nuclear strikes.

What does your average torturer wear to stroll the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan? Oakely developed a special high end, high tech boot for wear in desert climates. How many hundred thousand of these two hundred dollar a pop boots were sold is classified.

Oakley of course is known most for their eyewear. To read the vendor sales brouchure suggests something relevant to the Columbine syndrome.

“E Wire 2.1, sunglasses with XYZ optics, allowing for razor sharp clarity at all angles of view, perfect for SWAT teams and others who take their view of life seriously”.

Branding is about association, about abstractions such as lifestyle. The target audience for these sales pitches are MEN, young men primarely, uneducated, and who spend their down time playing video games (popular at military bases) and browsing catalogues of the cool new backpacks, assault gloves (weighted in case you have to punch a terrorist) and boots.

So does one really think the problem is the NRA? If ever there was a red herring in this debate it’s the NRA.

There is no area of product not in service to the military. Telecom is huge……MCI World Com got a 450 million dollar deal for developing a Research project for the Army, and a seven million dollar deal to develop a digital cellular system for help in training the Iraqi Armed Forces. Sprint works with Homeland Security, and AT&T has so many multi million dollar deals its impossible to list them all. No wonder Pinochet was put in power when AT&T holdings were threatened in Chile.

As Nick Turse points out, it’s not just toilet seats that account for millions in pork subsidies, today we have ‘nacho cheese warmers’ in every base kitchen.

Colt Dragoon revolver, 1853

The problem is not that shows are too violent. Sophocles was violent, so was Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky and Faulkner. The list goes on and on. Did ‘As I Lay Dying’ drive some pimple faced teenager to run amok anywhere? No, no book did. No single show did. Not even COPS or CSI Pensacola. The real issue is a violence based ideology. Imperialism, capitalism, colonialism. To not investigate the historical context of US politics, the beliefs that gave us Manifest Destiny and Hiroshima, and WACO and seven million people in the vast American gulag is to be irresponsible and willfully blind. What good art does is to investigate the violence, to honestly examine the dark heart of humankind as it exists under a political system bent on social domination. What “entertainment” does is the obscure this reality, to distract its audience from reflection and close observation of the world around them. A culture where men and women grow their food, tend their livestock and interact with nature is one qualitatively different from one predicated on factory farmed meat, GM crops, and constant marketing. The endless creation of false needs. I just gotta have those new Oakley SWAT shades……and if I want to really REALLY look cool, and feel masculine and powerful I should get that Kevlar vest, too. Where do I wear such a vest? Well…..

The liberal class in the US feels threatened. The state feels threatened. The Occupy movement has had enough traction, coupled to urban farming and the food movement, the prison abolitionists, the clear awakening of many people to the irrational conditions of life today, that the government doubled down with NDAA, with increased wire taps and suveillance and more and more visible policing in public areas. Across the planet there is awakening, and organizing and its scary for those who enjoy their privilege. Liberals who defend shows like Homeland and Girls and whateverthefuckever are complicit in this irrationality. The state dept propaganda machine has gone into hyperdrive. Zero Dark Thirty is the cultural result. To lavish praise on such a nakedly and craven bit of fascist storytelling is a grotesque expression of the values of the ruling class. The lap dog white apologists know this but they can’t bring themselves to find courage enough to denounce it…….after all, it might cost them a job. Hollywood produces virtually nothing that is not fetishized glorifications of authority, and male supremicism. It comes in various flavors…the hipster emptiness of idiots like Tarantino, in the soporific bromides of Speilberg, the Reifenstahl inspired naked fascism of Bigelow, the misogynist co-opting of feminism in Girls, or the nostalgia for empire in stuff like The King’s Speech. Whatever technical virtues some product may have, whatever virtuosity others may have, the bedrock meaning is the same.

The appropriating and neutralizing of dissent has been one of the prevailing functions of the culture industry. It ranges from fashion spotters hired by big manufacturers, slumming among the underclass to find the latest style trend and recreate a diluted version amenable to mass marketing, to the reflexive pandering of the cultural gatekeepers…the curators and academics, the “annointed” artists du jour, the branding of artists themselves. Aesthetic resistence means not doing what you are told by those who can pay you. Losing a check to those who need money is not easy, but I often wonder just how much money does one need? What is being purchased with the sale of your soul?

One needs to remember that the culture industry is an astoundingly profitable buisness. Gigantic amounts of money are made. Relatively few people can actually green light a new show or a film. Relatively few writers are employed and really, pretty few actors. One sees the same faces over and over and over, and in the credits one can read the same writers and same producers a pretty shocking number of times. Corporations are risk averse. If the guy made them money once, they figure lets squeeze more profit out of him. These “artists” make a LOT of money. A LOT! I’ve known quite a few of these people and every single one of them thinks of themselves as special, and different from the mass of hacks around them. Every single one. It is not surprising that none of them have the moral substance to stop and say, wait, what we do is recycle crap, reactionary and morally toxic crap. Now, I also know the day players, the men and women, working actors, who don’t make a huge amount of money. And usually I’ve found them to be the ones who do look to step outside the system. Maybe not often, but some do.

Now, of course, there are, with regularity, always new names cropping up. Just a handful. And they get sucked up fast. CAA or William Morris or whoever, signs them, advises them, and sells them. They rake in money very quickly, and just as quickly they stop giving a shit about what they making or appearing in.

The creative bankruptcy of Hollywood is staggering to behold. The lack of vision and imagination is testified to by the endless remakes and franchises. How many old stupid TV shows have become features? Did anyone actually think we needed a film version of “I Spy”? Was one “Hawaii Five O” not enough? Did Jack Lord not fully realize all the nuances and emotional depths of Steve McGarrett? This creative constipation is fully in accord with the business model at work, however. Don’t take risks. Even the predictable and routine controversies are planned and calculated. Its big business. AT&T doesn’t leave shit to chance, why would Time Warner?

So, even as this phase of late capitalism wheezes toward extinction, so does its cultural branch. However, the psychic fracturing that seems to occur more and more often, reaching a new level of cruelty and tragedy in Newtown, is simply a symptom of the birth of new forms of living. The ever expanding military full spectrum nightmare is also only symptom. Rumsfeld’s offhand remark during the Iraq invasion, that “we’re running out of targets” may well serve as one of the signature phrases of this era of capitalist death. As Hollywood runs out of old TV shows to remake, so the DoD is running out of countries to invade and is now on a return tour of previous sites. But then, thats sort of part of the plan, too. After all, Cheney’s old company, Halliburton, is in the business of rebuilding stuff that the US Military had blown apart. There is huge money involved in all of this. And I can’t help but think again about the nature of irrational hoarding. How much is enough? How many houses, how big, how expensive….is enough? How many watches or jewelry or meals at cool trendy restaurants is it that one desires? Or is it the praise and attention? The validation? Why do so few artists (sic) who have “arrived” ever look to create something outside this small box of corporate junk? Why ?

Part of the answer is that often, if not usually, they simply don’t know the difference. The same application of magical thinking applies to how people read News. If they watch MSNBC they might speculate about the personality of the talking head. Did he or she leave his or her wife or husband? Are they “nice” people do you think? This sort of fan-reading of even news broadcasts is only another example of the intensity of product attachment. People cant imagine life without Oprah, or Rachel Maddow, or Jeff Daniels….it’s not any different. The disintergration of public education again seems worth noting here.

The ever increasing murderous meltdowns of young men (and all are men) seems interwoven with this constant barrage of image and manufactured narrative. It’s not just the narrative of this weeks episode of Hawaii Five O, it’s the master narrative placed over all these shows and films. Its the narrative that includes both Zero Dark Thirty, AND state department briefings, or interviews with Obama, or Hillary. Its all one piece… the last death rattle of this propganda machine, the reverse memento mori art of kistch….a moment of absolute degraded culture. The place where stupid can get no stupider.

In Mike Davis “Planet of Slums”, Davis points out that the US military is already targeting the ‘criminalized’ slums of third world countries as future battle grounds. The Pentagon itself, in its “urban operations manual” of 2006, has said “Army forces will likely conduct future operations in and around urban areas”. Couple this to the uptick in militarizing of local police departments throughout the US, and a vision resembling many video war games starts to seem prophetic. The cosmic tinged meditative novels of Dick and Pynchon sensed something of this ruling class paranoia as it drifted and sifted down through various strata of society. It seems to culminate in a primitive crude narrative vision more like Escape from New York or Robocop. Of course, the fantasy of high tech surgical precision is just that, a fantasy. Its no more surgical than the mustard gas attacks of WW1 —-except in the movies. Except in video games.

White men with power. White patriarchy. The same vision that exterminated 600 Native American tribes. The same one that brought over boatloads of African slaves. The same one that has sent troops to make the planet safe for business profit, is now just turned out in more designer quality attire.

Aesthetic education means unlearning as much as anything else. Recognizing the human. The human, the uncanny, the sublime. All things which the culture industry works overtime to eliminate.


  1. I agree, John, that the problem isn’t guns but pure stupidity. That sums it up pretty clearly I think. And like global warming or the beetles eating the northern standing forests, it’s really a problem (300 million guns already in hand) that’s not worth talking about. Unless we (through our liberal electees) are willing to discuss a true and ultimate ban on guns, an actual law that makes them illegal and makes ownership a crime (like in, say, Japan) then there’s not a lot to say other than, “So that happened.”

  2. Just some personal episodes that happen to relate to your article
    ~I went to see Django Unchained the other night, not having read anything about it, but I liked the poster. It was a brutal movie, and just as you described, there was nothing conscious or deep about the violence. It wasn’t fairytale violence or realist violence or mythical violence, it was the pubescent boy fantasy of violence combined with adult cynicism, false history and phoney hipness. Finally I couldn’t watch any more so I went out to the lobby and opened the New York Times app on my sparkly new IPhone, thinking about your comment last week about liberals wringing their hands over the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary then going off to see Tarantino’s latest. There in my palm on the pocket sized screen was one horrible headline about violence after another; the body count in the paper rivaled the count in Tarantino’s film. WHich brought up the very question you’ve raised in your post, which is, that because we are so steeped in a certain UNawareness of the violence around us wrapped in a cocoon of media-tion it’s more necessary than ever to unpack the somnambulant horrors of our World in a rational way.
    ~My office neighbor, a man with Southern relatives, has one cousin, an IT employee at a big company, who is so fearful he got a permit to carry a concealed Glock semi automatic pistol (not sure of the model number!!). This is a man who has never been threatened, never served in the armed forces, or been beaten up. He just thinks it’s necessary to carry.
    ~A private company in Ohio is now offering, to public school teachers and under state sposorship, training in the use of weapons and other defensive tactics so that they can carry concealed weapons, just like the NRA advised. (I quibble with the red herring comment because they are a HUGE lobbying organization for gun manufacturers who are largely driving this personal arms race)

  3. John Steppling says:

    I think Rita expresses something that should be obvious……and I think I didnt articulate this, maybe because it seems obvious to me. The depiction of violence, of murder, of death, is a significant artistic act. And yet in almost all discussions of the topic, there is never any distinction made about the nature of the depiction. What is the artist expressing, what is the sensibility driving these depictions of death and violence…..of carnage and torture. What is the level of seriousness involved? I said above there are depictions of violence and there are depictions of violence.

    The sense of sadism for example…in a tarrentino, seems so excessive….so immature and almost malignant, or vicious…..but a particular kind of vicious. Its like a sheep killin’ dog, as burroughs used to put it. Its just wanton, and insensitive. If you compare ….as an example, the knife fight in McCarthy…..its in one of those books in his trilogy……….the depth of the expression causes an exhaustion. You cannot escape the magnitude of the act. Of the consequences. For a hollywood action film there is nothing, just nothing …..its just routine, normalized slaughter. There is no intention, per se. Its just the ignoring of all that. The absence of any sensibility renders it just wholesale aggression, and its not even that. It doesnt rise to the level of a shark attack……..its empty and pointless and additionally, the camera caresses the violence, the CAMERA provides the meaning, and because of that sort of filter it just distanced and unreal. But then unreality is the touchstone of this culture.

  4. john steppling says:

    and yes i know its tarantino. I have this aversion to correcting it though.

  5. john steppling says:

    and in the case of tarantino tarrention, the additional hostility to the truth………(the KKK for example didnt begin until a while AFTER the civil war ) the disregard for truth telling. I mean his own truth. He doesnt consider it. I so dislike the way that it caters to an adolescent sort of titillation…….its boy fantasy………..its dreaming of beating up the playground bully writ large. Someone commented somehwere else that he didnt want anyone telling him what to watch. This is very american I think. The most defensive culture in the history of the world. Discussion is seen as personal attack. Have a nice day…….hey, dont fucking tell me what to do.

    But with QT, this is coupled also to his marketed use of the word Nigger. Oh….see….cool. Its exactly like the violence. In Death Proof……..there is no story, really, just cleverness in places, and then slow motion body parts flying around. There is nothing of any meaning in the entire film. I cant think of another film that has so emptied itself of all content…………except for torture porn images. And yet, somewhere, the WHITE audience, young audience, and really all white folk, seem to flock to see this stuff.

  6. john steppling says:

    death proof is also, a singularly misogynistic film. Singular. Profoundly so. Everything Q T does feels like his own sense of inadquacy spelled out……compensation.

  7. Great point regarding the lack of exhaustion. The video game killing brought to life in action films. It’s also evident in humor too. The nastiness evident in so much humor. I know you return a lot to Pryor, and I will again, in that even the darkest of his bits contained so much compassion. A Prophet is another example of compassion. An extremely violent film, but not sadistic or childish.

  8. Good point re QT’s “compensation.” He’s not only competing against video games and the history of (better) film making, he’s also chasing his own myth. He stumbled upon some degree of nervous zeitgeist early on and seems to be trying to live up to it over and over again. Meanwhile, he’s doing nothing new and certainly nothing of any artistic worth. (I haven’t seen Django, but I get the gist). A lot of movies lack art, but his seem to project an aura of artistic depth, as if he’s established a new kind of contemporary, American art cinema when, in fact, he hasn’t. I always feel, when I’ve watched one of his movies, like he’s fetishizing violence and black people and, well, stupidity (John Travolta’s character in “Pulp Fiction”– the neophyte, half retarded gun man) to look cool. I would guess that he imagines himself a kind of Fellini or early Herzog, shining the camera on the curious and dramatizing some kind of dreamworld (in his case, more of a simplified fantasy world). But, as you say, he comes across as just another scared, hack white guy afraid he’s going to get kicked out of the frat party (seems to me), dressing himself up like a cowboy, or a black man, or a gangster.

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