Theatre of Mayhem

|by John Steppling|


















“It is necessary to recognize that acts of extreme violence and cruelty do not represent merely an odd or marginal and private retreat into barbarism. On the contrary, warlike values and the social mindset they legitimate have become the primary currency of a market-driven culture that takes as its model a Darwinian shark tank in which only the strongest survive. In a neoliberal order in which vengeance and revenge seem to be the most cherished values in a “social order organized around the brute necessity of survival,” violence becomes both a legitimate mediating force and one of the few remaining sources of pleasure.11 At work in the new hyper-social Darwinism is a view of the Other as the enemy, an all-too-quick willingness in the name of war to embrace the dehumanization of the Other, and an all-too-easy acceptance of violence, however extreme, as routine and normalized. As many theorists have observed, the production of extreme violence in its various incarnations is now a source of profit for Hollywood moguls, mainstream news, popular culture, the corporate-controlled entertainment industry, and a major market for the defense industries.” – Henry Giroux

The question of violence in popular culture is now inescapable. The sheer volume of gun shots, explosions, car wrecks, torture, beatings, and the amount of noise this generates; the screams, crashes, and automatic weapons fire is available and screened pretty much 24-7. The US public lives in an enclosed psychic cell of mayhem. This is largely the point of Giroux’s excellent article at Monthly Review.

“Within this network of alignments, risk and danger combine with myth and fantasy to stoke the seductions of sadomasochistic violence, echoing the fundamental values of the fascist state in which aesthetics dissolves into pathology and a carnival of cruelty. How else to explain the emergence of superhero films that increasingly contain deep authoritarian strains, films that appear to have a deep hold on their dutifully submissive audiences. The film critic A. O. Scott has argued that films such as Spider-Man, Dark Knight, and The Avengers are marked by a “hectic emptiness,” “bloated cynicism,” and “function primarily as dutiful corporate citizens…serving private interests.” But most important, they reinforce the increasingly popular notion that “the price of entertainment is obedience.” There is more at work here than what Scott calls “imaginative decadence.” There is also the seductive lure and appeal of the authoritarian personality, which runs deep in U.S. culture and finds its emergence in the longing for hyper-masculine superheroes who merge vigilante justice with anti-democratic values.”

How is it, in the face of daily news items about not just foreign wars (for those are easy to project as something that happens far away, to people unlike us, and conducted by *experts* on such matters) but on domestic acts of violence, by both police and the public themselves, there is really so little reaction. Increasingly the violence doesn’t even try to hide itself as the work of *criminals* (perhaps because that term is openly fluid these days) but is the work of high school kids, workers, unhappy spouses, or parents. The shock of three three women discovered in a suburban home in Cleveland, captives for over a decade, was really only mild shock for the narrative had been played out in numerous films and TV cop shows. One wonders if Ariel Castro in fact had either directly, or indirectly, internalized such tropes and after letting it germinate for years, gave it expression in real life. The dominant brother of three (if we are to believe the police) had worked as a school bus driver for years. The lurid tabloid story of Jodi Arias grabbed some interest, because, again, the plot was familiar. Bleach blond seductress, Methamphetamine, small economically depressed town. Even Travis Alexander’s career as a motivational speaker felt a bit familiar. Where do kitsch TV shows and reality meet, or rather in what ways do they cross pollinate?

The U.S. culture of violence cuts across both gender and class, although both are mediating factors and significant ones if one is attempting to trace certain specific branches of violence and their origins. There is infrequent discussion of Capitalism’s inherent violence. The logic of Capital is to WIN….and that means beating the competition. There is an almost embarrassed silence on this subject; for it’s easier to discuss gun control, or video games, or even war, rather than examine the fact that capitalism is now reaching its optimal incarnation as pure consolidated structural violence, a distilled tightened ratio of inequality and punishment. It is a mental critical mass, and the ruthless ethos of capital, especially in its Wall Street hedge fund practioners, permeates consciousness, and it can be seen clearly in Hollywood film, as well as in daily life, in the routines at the water cooler (except many offices did away with water coolers) or in lunch rooms, or back alleys during cigarette breaks.

What Giroux describes as the media depiction of hyper masculine protagonists, is right, but it’s not the entire story. The Hollywood super heroes of today are not just “hyper masculine”, but also oddly un-alive. They lack nuance, and the plastic surgery and photoshopping, and CGI, and post production tweeking, all contribute to this feeling of simulacra. When I wrote about automation, about technology, I was aware of what was being stolen from daily life, the pride in crafts or learned skills, in traditions handed down through families. This may have included (well, it DID include) the most brutalizing and dangerous work sometimes, but it allowed for a culture that created folk legends, heroes and mythic symbols for the laboring class. As Capital has financialized, it has also become more abstract, and post industrial Capitalism has destroyed community and torn apart traditions in the name of “progress” — and one of the problems of the middle brow reaction to hyper-violence has been to create as corrective, a de-masculinized low testosterone masculinity of adjustment. It is the revenge of the dying white (nerd) patriarch. The pater familias without his family — this is, I suspect, why the adjective “hollow” continues to crop up so often when describing cultural product in the 21st century. The grown but still childish impersonater of adulthood.

This white male rage is manifested in state violence firstly. No matter how many black cops one can find, police brutality is a white man’s crime. And its directed against black and brown, and poor. The Imperialist wars of Empire are also white wars directed against foreigners with odd habits and beliefs… relatively powerless, who once knew their place as obedient colonial subjects.

So, if Dracula was the repressed Victorian libido (Moretti), then the endless stream of super hero films today are the post modern weakened libido in acts of over-compensation. One of the best films of the first decade of the new century was Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus, the story of TV actor Bob Crane, and his unseemly murder.

 It is like watching some awful confession from people you know slightly, but don’t want to know about deeply. It is the stripping away of the hyper masculine to reveal the terminal dissatisfaction and depression at the heart of so many adult men and their idea of the pursuit of happiness. It is the portrait of a stunted American dream.That despair, that panic, of course must be shot through a socially acceptable prism, or filter, in most mainstream film or theatre. For the 21st century, that prism is usually science, progress, technology. The virility so compromised in daily life, its lack felt so acutely by studio execs, is blown out of proportion in creations such as Iron Man, or Super Man, or theDark Knight. Or it is couched in a faux history of romanticized violence, Boardwalk Empire, or any of another twenty Mafia and gangster franchises.

In Auto Focus, the shriveling potency felt by white male America is reflected in a compulsive womanizing second tier TV actor. I can think of few films, actually, as disturbing as Auto Focus.

The strange nostalgia for cold war style, the ironic hipster subsuming of shiny shark skin coats and Brillcreame is perhaps a defense mechanism after all. The Huge Hefner anachronistic martini at quarter to two, James Bond, the Rat Pack, the lounge act; all interrupted oddly by the sixties, when drugs replaced booze and the trauma of the Viet Nam war slashed across the collective, and civil rights and assasination — finally as it came to an end, and the state scurried in search of ways to prevent it happening again, and as the long hair and styles receded and Madison Avenue regrouped and opened new fronts in the culture wars, the hollow men were left, with their perception of ownership rattled. Without tracking the entire evolution of white man privilege, and how it expresses itself culturally, the companion product to those hyper violent comic book heroes, or the sadistic vigilante cop was the earnest Liberal reformer film. Redford’s output is a useful gauge, from Brubaker to The Natural, to The Legend of Bagger Vance, but perhaps most clearly in Up Close and Personal; the middle brow white paternal code operates in complete arrogance and blindess. I singled out Up Close and Personal, for the original script by John Gregory Dunne, and based on the life of news anchor Jessica Savitch, had been worked on for eight years, chronicling the life of the pill popping self destructive network news-blond talking head –and meant as a dissection of the privileged class, its superficial grasp of reality, and the corporate domination and control of the “news”. In the end, however, Redford and the studio turned it into a A Star is Born redux. No reason to produce bummer buzz kill. White world doesn’t like to advertise what it sees as it failures.

The Natural appealed to that specific creepy white liberal fixation with baseball as nostalgic pastime. It conjurs a pastoral setting that never existed, but which functions in White mythology as if it did (this season 30% of MLB players are foreign born, the majority from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela). There is in Redford such a reflex sentimentality, such a turgid sensibility, that anything he touches becomes a flaccid valentine to the good intentions and abilities of rich white people.

Bagger Vance is just another “magical negro” product, starring that most white of black actors, Will Smith.

I should add, as a footnote, Lions to Lambs, made in 2007, because while its a coda project in Redford’s long tedious career, it is also, possibly, the most representative film for the Democratic Party interventionist belief system. This is the ‘liberal who loves war’ syndrome (and as an added treat you get to see Redford trying to act all ‘professor’ey.).

The point here is that as the liberal reformer hero gradually gave way in the face of Reaganomics and the various hedge fund schemes, as wealth became more polarized, and as the economy, such as it was, became ever more pegged to the Pentagon and base building and the defense industry, the white liberal hero felt (more) tumescent. It might be interesting to track the rise of MMA contests and its inter-relationship with DC and Marvell comics franchises. Hyper violent unmediated blood sport, and the new barely mediated vigilante fascism. In fact, it’s interesting to clock the entire recent Batman franchise.

The Tim Burton Batman film, with Michael Keaton came out in 1989, the follow up a couple years later. Following on this came installments by Joel Schumacher, and eventually Chris Nolan. The Burton films, however, marked the liberal sensibility’s entree into the hyper-reactionary world of Bruce Wayne, billionaire vigilante. Burton, himself a sort of irony laden art school hipster, found a seamless meeting of liberal style and fascist content. In fact, I suppose the liberal codes were barely there, even in that original Keaton version. Still, they retained a sense of humor, and seemed pitched clearly at a youth market. Schumacher, another Hollywood liberal, followed the same formula, basically, with less energy, and then with Nolan, something shifted, as if the studio understood an era of Redford soft paternalism was over. Nolan was the new cruise missile left, a Clinton era filmmaker now expressing the Bush era War on Terror moral vacuity. Nolan’s Batman was more jingoistic, more racist, and more militarist. Each subsequent installment of the series felt more sadistic, and more nihilistic. But its nihilism was the negation of life, not an expression of anguish. It WAS nihilistic. They were also humorless, and they seemed to target an adult demographic (well, as if this culture has any adults left in it). They were portentious self important fascist storytelling made by a self important director (son of an ad copy writer for a marketing firm…same as Guy Ritchie, interestingly) with grand Wellesian delusions.

At the same time as the Burton Batman, the first MMA contests were being staged and getting cable deals — the era of the Gracie family momentary monopoly. Previously, violence in sport had had to mediated, even if barely, as in boxing. The full on embrace of pure punishment coincided, I think, with liberalism’s strategy of layering its apologia for violence with a recipe of ironic codes. If art school far-out-ness, complete with funny eye glass frames, could create openly fascist entertainments, then why not relax all the nozzle settings for sublimation. David Lynch (who in his spare time owns and runs very profitable business schools in Europe) was the exemplar of the faux liberal, serving undergraduate taste perfectly. I will say,Mulholland Drive did contain enough of anti-Hollywood feeling to rise to the level of genuine auteur work. Lynch was never about much to begin with, from Eraserhead to Blue Velvet, this was the work of a middle brow conformist who gave educated liberal college kids a safe sort of protest to their parents digging on Brubaker.

In any event, this brings us back to the current hyper violence of Capital. There are no refuges in which to escape, for this last optimal epoch for Capital, for dying Empire, for the frenzy of carnage and blood, it is the anti-Dionysian, a death cult, a infectious final wheeze that seems unable to satiate itself. It does resemble a bad sci fi horror film. It is the invasion of the body snatchers, but it is the pods created by the irrational drives of Capital. The canonizing of profit as a justifiable motive for murder, for sadism and torture, is now openly expressed. Bruce Wayne’s mission no longer seemed about justice, but about the cleansing of the the poor from Gotham City. It began to feel like a de-populating, an ethnic cleansing as much as anything.

Nolan is now serving as producer on Man of Steel, the latest Superman film, directed by arch reactionary Zach Snyder. The final small tiles have fallen off the facade, and we have reached absolute totalitarian kitsch.

Snyder’s real breakthrough film, remember, was 300, as fully fascistic and racist a film as one might find in the last decade, but its violence was a violence to the aesthetic and taste, as well, and even more dehumanizing than Nolan’s baroque authoritarianism in its lurid vulgarity and eroticized warfare. Snyder may be the perfect director for Obama’s America. He is tasteless, vulgar, and war mongering. The white guy who liked to read comic books and now gets to make big comic books himself. Today’s Hollywood feels more and more like a repository for the resentments and anger of infantile white boys (i.e. studio execs).

As Giroux points out, the most concise example of this new madness on the non cultural front is perhaps Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who strolled out from his base in Kandahar and in an orgy of violence cut down seventeen villagers, most of them children and women. Bates is this era’s Lt Calley. But Bates feels more possessed, more confused as well. He strolled back to base and turned himself in.

Domestically, the state of siege can be found at schools, even at pre-schools, at least if you are black or brown.

The open intentions of turning schools into prison compounds found a receptive audience in the hyper resentful American white man. In New York, you have the stop and frisk, and those justifications that are part of the entire societal back drop now….The War on Terror… are not really meant to be taken at face value. The entire society, even those in opposition, seem to read the meta-narrative first, and only later think to digest the actual meaning of the top text, of the story. And really, the meta narrative is the same: America is a force for good, making money is blessed by God, and minorities should be kept in line (or given how they have uncontrollable sexual urges, they might become the *majority*). That Israeli soldiers routinely shoot children, and that drone strikes employ “double taps” to ensure those trying to help their injured or dying friends are murdered, too, is reported daily and people barely react is testament to the moral vacuum in which we live.

 Presumably just knowing someone the U.S. *THINKS* might be a terrorist is enough to get killed. In other words, we kill who the fuck we want, and if you don’t like it, well, fuck off. Popular entertainment remains (and intensifies) white people killing, beating up, and driving cars very fast. Film franchises such as Fast and Furious, now in its 6th or 7th installment, are presented as morality plays — simple soap opera level narratives that are squeezed in between car chases and all with the exaggerated and magnified sound of car engines. The message is always the same, the U.S. military is the highest moral achievement possible. Support your Troops. Hoo-ha. Moral nullity meets aesthetic nullity.There is now a formatting of the new Empire’s user-manual: torture, extrajudicial murder, surveillance, and the increasing automation of murder means this stretching of the very idea of ethics and morality to the point where reason itself is colonized, and made to conform. And the culture industry increasingly reflects this. Directors such as Chris Nolan, Zach Snyder, Michael Bay, Guy Ritchie, and really Joss Whedon, and J.J. Abrams too, are producing much the same film. Nolan and Snyder are the hard authoritarian end of the spectrum, and Whedon and Abrams the soft liberal authoritarian end, but really, the same message permeates this work — the necessity for state violence, masculinity IS violence, authority must use power to keep (fill in blank…aliens, criminals, viruses, women…) in line. A discussion of the misogyny in the films from these directors would necessitate another whole post, but I think it would be worthwhile to look at women in DC and Marvell comics. One must develop aesthetic resistance — a pedagogy of radical culture. The conclusion I leave to Giroux:

“Any viable challenge to the new authoritarianism and its theater of cruelty and violence must include developing a variety of cultural discourses and sites where new modes of agency can be imagined and enacted, particularly as they work to reconfigure a new collective subject, modes of sociality, and “alternative conceptualizations of the self and its relationship to others.”

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Posted in: Articles, Henry Giroux, Suggested Reading