Living in a Culture of Cruelty: Democracy as Spectacle

The celebration of hyper-violence, moral sadism and torture travels easily from fiction to real life with the emergence in the past few years of a proliferation of “bum fight” videos on the Internet, “shot by young men and boys who are seen beating the homeless or who pay transients a few dollars to fight each other.” [15] The culture of cruelty mimics cinematic violence as the agents of abuse both indulge in actual forms of violence and then further celebrate the barbarity by posting it on the web, mimicking the desire for fame and recognition, while voyeuristically consuming their own violent cultural productions. The National Coalition for the Homeless claims that “On YouTube in July 2009, people have posted 85,900 videos with ‘bum’ in the title [and] 5,690 videos can be found with the title ‘bum fight,’ representing … an increase of 1,460 videos since April 2008.” [16] Rather than problematize violence, popular culture increasingly normalizes it, often in ways that border on criminal intent. For instance, a recent issue of Maxim, a popular men’s magazine, included “a blurb titled ‘Hunt the Homeless’ [focusing on] a coming ‘hobo convention’ in Iowa and says ‘Kill one for fun. We’re 87 percent sure it’s legal.'” [17] In this context, violence is not simply being transformed into an utterly distasteful form of adolescent entertainment or spectacularized to attract readers and boost profits, it becomes a powerful pedagogical force in the culture of cruelty by both aligning itself and becoming complicit with the very real surge of violence against the homeless, often committed by young men and teenage boys looking for a thrill. Spurred on by the ever reassuring presence of violence and dehumanization in the wider culture, these young “thrill offenders” now search out the homeless and “punch, kick, shoot or set afire people living on the streets, frequently killing them, simply for the sport of it, their victims all but invisible to society.” [19] All of these elements of popular culture speak stylishly and sadistically to new ways in which to maximize the pleasure of violence, giving it its hip (if fascist) edginess.

Needless to say, neither violent video games and television series nor Hollywood films and the Internet (or for that matter popular culture) cause in any direct sense real world violence and suffering, but they do not leave the real world behind either. That is too simplistic. What they do achieve is the execution of a well-funded and highly seductive public pedagogical enterprise that sexualizes and stylizes representations of violence, investing them with an intense pleasure quotient. I don’t believe it is an exaggeration to claim that the violence of screen culture entertains and cleanses young people of the burden of ethical considerations when they, for instance, play video games that enabled them to “casually kill the simulated human beings whose world they control.” [20] Hollywood films such as the “Saw” series offer up a form of torture porn in which the spectacle of the violence enhances not merely its attraction, but offers young viewers a space where questions of ethics and responsibility are gleefully suspended, enabling them to evade their complicity in a culture of cruelty. No warnings appear on the labels of these violent videos and films, suggesting that the line between catharsis and desensitization may become blurred, making it more difficult for them to raise questions about what it means “to live in a society that produces, markets, and supports such products.” [21] But these hyper-violent cultural products also form part of a corrupt pedagogical assemblage that makes it all the more difficult to recognize the hard realities of power and material violence at work through militarism, a winner-take-all economy marked by punishing inequalities and a national security state that exhibits an utter disregard for human suffering. Even the suffering of children, we must note, as when government officials reduce the lives of babies and young children lost in Iraq and Afghanistan to collateral damage. Tragically, the crime here is much more than symbolic.

The ideology of hardness and cruelty runs through American culture like an electric current, sapping the strength of social relations and individual character, moral compassion and collective action, offering up crimes against humanity that become fodder for video games and spectacularized media infotainment, and constructing a culture of cruelty that promotes a “symbiosis of suffering and spectacle.” [22] As Chris Hedges argues,

“Sadism is as much a part of popular culture as it is of corporate culture. It dominates pornography, runs … through reality television and trash-talk programs and is at the core of the compliant, corporate collective. Corporatism is about crushing the capacity for moral choice. And it has its logical fruition in Abu Ghraib, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our lack of compassion for the homeless, our poor, the mentally ill, the unemployed and the sick.” [23]

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