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Western Society’s Fascination with Death, Violence

Not only outer space, but our inner spaces too, are being militarized. On the first day of its launch last month, the computer game “Call of Duty: Black Ops” sold 3.6 million copies and fetched more than $360 million in the U.S., Canada and Britain alone.
 

These games encapsulate the twin obsessions of late modernity: technical wizardry and death. It is an irony noted by many cultural observers that, as longevity increases in Western societies and actual encounters with dead bodies and rituals of death become rarer in the lives of children and youth, the fascination with suicide and violent death increases. Acts of suicide, and even public executions, are filmed and posted on the Internet. Violence dominates movies and the media.

 

The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, who became a cult figure for many in the 1980s, insisted that “One should work on one’s suicide throughout one’s life.” Like most French intellectuals, Foucault generated a mountain of words. The reader has to tunnel through a pile of dense, obscure and luxuriant prose to find a gem of genuine insight.

 

Unlike most French intellectuals, however, Foucault seemed to practice what he wrote. He openly spoke of his obsession with pain and death as well as the “desexualization of pleasure” by putting our bodies and body parts to new uses. He found irresistible the sado-masochistic techniques of eroticism practiced in the gay bathhouses of San Francisco, which he frequently visited.

 

Immersing himself in the city’s S/M subculture was part of his quest for “limit-experiences,” to traverse the frontiers between reason and unreason, pain and pleasure, life and death. He tragically contracted AIDS and died in 1984, but saw this too as another “limit-experience.”

 

Advocates and defenders of consensual S/M claim that much of the cruelty and violence is simulated, that the majority of those who indulge in such activities are harmless men and women.

 

That may well be so. But the rest of us still wonder why violence, simulated or real, is so closely connected with pleasure. To say that such acts express a perversion of desire is to use language that is unfashionable in certain academic-media circles (although, curiously, it is still accepted in condemning rape and pedophilia – two acts which Foucault, interestingly, wanted to “liberate” from criminal sanctions).

 

The theologian, Walter Wink, famously coined the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence,” describing the pervasive modern fantasy that violence could bring about a new world freed of tyranny and injustice. It trades on the depiction of the enemy as the “evil other,” usually reduced to a subhuman status.

 

 

 

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Indeed, in many contemporary contexts, people are habituated into hating their enemies and desiring vengeance. Most of the popular movies we see – whether from Hollywood, Mumbai or Taiwan – are celebrations of the hero taking vengeance on those who have harmed his family or friends.

 

On the way numerous others are “wasted” – and computer simulation and special effects have made it possible to multiply the scales of death and destruction to new heights of incredulity. Killing is great fun.

 

For those of us who live in societies brutalized by decades of actual violence, the preoccupation with celluloid violence (whether in North America or South Asia, it makes no difference) is bemusing.

 

The British novelist, Linda Grant, observed a few years ago: “Half the population of the world is running away from violence into refugee camps and the other half is paying good money to watch it at the multiplex. We have managed to separate the real from the imaginary into such watertight compartments that we can laugh at heads being blown off at the cinema while requiring trauma counseling if we arrive home to find we have been burgled.”

 

The myth of “redemptive violence” has been exposed time and again in the last century. In recent years, the invasion of Iraq and the continuing war in Afghanistan, not to mention the bloodbaths in places like Kashmir and Sri Lanka, have only entrenched hatreds and brutalized politics.

 

I am no pacifist. My adherence to what is (misleadingly) called the Just War Tradition is spelled out in the first chapter of my book “Subverting Global Myths” (IVP/SPCK, 2008). Neither the invasion of Iraq nor the war on the Taliban met the criteria for a justifiable war.

 

Not surprisingly, al-Qaida seems to have mutated from a disciplined, well-funded organization to a ragtag collection of anarchic groups, attracting any alienated Muslim youth and motivated less by an ideology than a lust for revenge and the same romantic image of violence that non-Muslim Western youth toy with. This kind of terrorism is far harder to deal with than prior to 9/11.

 

In a culture gripped by fear of all kinds – from foiled bomb plots to rising unemployment and failing politics – is the manufacture and consumption of simulated violence merely escapism? Or, as I suggested in my post “Hi-Tech Terror,” has the boundary between simulated and real violence become blurred in the new forms of warfare that have taken the killing out of the hands of professional soldiers and given them to computer geeks?

 

Vinoth Ramachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka. A version of this column first appeared on his blog.