The Pornography of Violence
[This is] the central dilemma of all efforts at witnessing.
In the midst of a massacre, in the face of torture, in the
eye of a hurricane, in the aftermath of an earthquake, or
even, say, when horror looms apparently more gently in memories
that won't recede and so come pouring forth in the late-night
quiet of a kitchen. . . . do you the observer, stay behind
the lens of the camera, switch on the tape recorder, keep
pen in hand? Are there limitsof respect, piety, pathosthat
should not be crossed, even to leave a record? But if you
can't stop the horror, shouldn't you at least document it?
I don't know much about pornography but I do watch the
news, so I have a clue. (Cain 1999:1)
American popular culture increasingly revolves around cruelty
(see, e.g., Matthews 1997, 1998; Nuruddin Farah 1996; Seltzer
1997; Weiss 1995). Mass media highlight violence, particularly
against children, linking condemnation to constant obsessive
replays. More abstract cruelties receive social acclaim: Both
major political parties hailed balancing the federal budget
and impoverishing over a million children as a great victory
for children; CEOs who "downsize" breadwinners,
again impoverishing children, become rich.
Fearfulness and moralizing aside, Americans practice and
approve of violence. Widespread approval of violence in other
spheres of life cannot help but influence what goes on in
the family [within which most American violence occurs]. Moreover,
there is evidence to show it is a circular process: the violence
occurring in the family is one of the things that make for
a violence-approving society in other spheres of life. (Straus
1974:61 and citations therein)
The glorification of violence, the "pornography of violence,"
which we decent folks condemn, requires perverse and obsessive
denial and repression of the real effects of violent action....
[W]e know it pricks our interest and that, neurotically almost,
we work obsessively, impossibly, to avoid contaminating ourselves.
This pervasive mystifying ambivalence makes talking about
violence a tricky job. Trickiest of all is the issue of cruelty
to children, perhaps the most disquieting type of cruelty.
Let's be clear about the facts. Slaversthere are still
lots of themtarget children. In war, combatants focus
on children. Micaela, 11, who survived the massacre at Acteal,
Chiapas, on 22 December 1997, told Christina Eber, a mutual
friend, that the killers cried "Destroy the seed!"
(cf. Abramson 1998; Nordstrom 1997:5). American media are
awash in images and stories of cruelty to children. That means
they're popular enough to sell soap. Simultaneously, people
who try to understand it and represent it accurately may be
accused of peddling pornography. The ambivalence of Americans
is almost as disquieting as the cruelties themselves.
In response, Academe shies away in denial of violence. Where
the media reflect and generate a "pathologic compulsion
to look at scenes of torture and murder" (Huppauf 1997:4),
academic writing swallows it up. The result resembles the
Human Relations Area Files handbook for categorizing ethnographic
information (Murdock et al. 1982): 283 Cordage, 567 Slavery,
615 Phratries, 715 Military Vehicles. Everything evens out
emotionally, disappears into "professional" detachment
(Bloch 1998; Dentan 1995, 1997; Nordstrom 1997:16-20; Ortner
1995). Reality becomes fog.
What does "pornography of violence" mean? You'd
think something like "emotionally arousing material that
focusses on doing harm to people in a way that, perhaps tacitly,
seems to condone that behavior in order to gratify the author
or reader" (paraphrasing Russell 1993:3-12). It would
present victims as dehumanized commodities, and be itself
a commodity, coarsening people's sensibilities and implicitly
encouraging violence (ibid., 15-21). If the objects of cruelty
were "people of color," this representation might
reflect or promote racism (Nuruddin Farah 1996; cf. Dentan
But "academic debates...often privilege the textual
and find 'pornography' in texts many others would consider
too dreary to read" (Wicke 1991:75). Teaching about violence
becomes suspect. You lay yourself open to all sorts of accusations,
by colleagues and students alike, although the chance that
a scholarly lecture is going to titillate potential consumers
of the pornography of violence seems "minimal" (
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