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« Gap Flap (Sujatha) | Main | Group Genetics and IQ - The New Caste System »

October 31, 2007


Andrew, you might want to put a "spoiler alert!" in your post before you reveal plot details, otherwise some people who haven't seen 'Die Hard 4' and are meaning to, will be very unhappy. Thanks.


An appropriate post for Halloween. I haven't seen either Fight Club or the Die Hard movies. My stomach for screen violence has diminished in direct proportion to my advancing age. Although I like John Travolta, Samuel Jackson et al as actors, I found Pulp Fiction rather unpalatable while my husband sat through it without flinching. I now have an idea about Fight Club by reading Freed's article that you have linked to. My curiosity is piqued. I have put it on my Netflix line up. But I am betting once again that my husband will probably derive greater pleasure out of it than I am likely to.

The first part of the question that the two authors attempt to answer ("Does the myth cause the behavior or the behavior spawn the myth?") may seem to be of the "chicken & egg" variety. But I think it is quite definitely the latter. We create myths based on our own proclivities and not vice-versa. Most ancient folk and religious mythology is violent (Norse, Greek and Indian myths, the Bible, the Quran). But with the civilizing effects of time, the violent aspects of those myths have no special appeal for most of us.

The second question is posed by you. Does the rough and tumble of survival in a "natural jungle" a better stimulator of violence or is our sense of confinement in an "urban jungle" a surer trigger for random and casual violence? I doubt that anthropologists and social biologists have a very good answer for this one. There are several instances in human history which would support or refute either scenario. I am not an expert but off the top of my head, I can come up with a couple of examples.

For instance, if Slotkin's Daniel Boone "outdoors" theory is correct, then Canada, a nearby country with similar demographics and developmental trajectory (taming of a savage land and subduing of a native population) ought to be as violent as the US. But it is not. On the other hand, if Freed's post modern "cubicle" theory is correct, then Japan ought to be a frighteningly violent society. But it is not.

My uneducated guess is that the level of violence depends on paranoia and social sanction of aggression. As long as the citizenry of a nation believes that unchecked gun (including assault weapons) ownership, concealed weapons and vigilante justice by individuals are essential for "personal safety" and pre-emptive strikes by their government against annoying nations ensures "national security," that society is likely to see a lot of casual violence. And this may be a stretch, but I also feel that countries which have high levels of social services and safety networks (medical, educational, retirement benefits, services for the handicapped etc.) have less violence because citizens see themselves as being valued by the state and in turn value each others health and safety also.

The only other movie that I recall which began with the kind of random violence described in Fight Club was Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange. I don't know how Fight Club ends but C.O. ended with mind control experiments conducted by the establishment - another level of "civilized" violence.

The main puzzle to ponder over is if we humans do indeed "need" some form of violence (participatory or vicarious) to keep our juices flowing. Is the controlled and recreational violence of sports (boxing, hunting, wrestling, football and the video games you reviewed) or action movies, a good enough outlet for our primitive hormone driven inclinations? Or do we have to actually taste blood, crush bones and blow up our adversaries in the back alley or in a foreign land?

Your point about whether we need some kind of violence "to keep our juices flowing" is exactly to the point -- it reminds me of Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. If you (and Freud) are right, Slotkin's cultural history about the heroic frontiersman is less important, because if it weren't native Americans that early Americans were beating up on, there would be some other scapegoat.

A bit of free association triggered (yes, a pun) by Ruchira's and Andrew's comments: I thought first of René Girard, whose work on violence and scapegoating is likely apt...but I confess I haven't read any of it! Then I recalled Joyce Carol Oates' On Boxing, which I read long ago, and an excerpt of which is here. As the excerpt shows, she draws a clear line along gender distinctions. Closer to home, she captures exactly my 19-month-old's approach to playing with blocks. Daddy builds elaborate, multi-level structures, and Sebastian knocks them down, then giggles. (Of course, Freud may be at work here, too.)

Ruchira, I think your analysis of the myth/behavior dialectic is troubled. You write, "We create myths based on our own proclivities...," but this assumes too clean a distinction between creation and other proclivities. Obviously, we (as a collective) don't somehow reflect on our behaviors and then consequently proceed to create corresponding narratives. This sort of creation itself entails an underlying violence. I'm thinking of Robert Cover's by now iconic article, Nomos and Narrative, among other of his works, for which "law and narrative are inseparably related," and "the jurisgenerative principle by which legal meaning proliferates in all communities never exists in isolation from violence. Interpretation always takes place in the shadow of coercion." I'm conflating law and myth here, but Cover is rigorously attentive to the "mythos-narratives" motivating law. I'm also thinking of Walter Benjamin's Critique of Violence, a characteristically cryptic account of the genesis of law in an eruption of violence.

As for the competing theories of violence, Ruchira's formulation of the question gives a clue. "[R]andom and casual violence" is not a stable category, because the means necessary to survive are not persistent. We no longer need to hunt. Commercial industries produce our foods, and many of us prefer not to confront the violence perpetrated by slaughterhouses, at least not qua violence. It isn't so much the "glorification" of violence that disturbs us--except perhaps on an aesthetic level--as the real occurrence of random and casual violence. I'm inclined to view boxing as such an occurrence, albeit an ironic one, inasmuch as professional boxing is a highly organized, highly rationalized enterprise. Yet the existence of that enterprise seems to me to be random, almost inexplicable.

But what do you say we invite Slotkin and Reed to don the gloves and duke it out? That'll settle the matter.

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