Reveling in the Pain of Others: Moral Degeneracy and Violence in the "Kill Team" Photos
The inability to identify with others was unquestionably the most important psychological condition for the fact that something like Auschwitz could have occurred in the midst of more or less civilized and innocent people.... The coldness of the societal monad, the isolated competitor, was the precondition, as indifference to the fate of others.... Regressive tendencies, that is, people with repressed sadistic traits, are produced everywhere today by the global evolution of society.... Everywhere where it is mutilated, consciousness is reflected back upon the body and the sphere of the corporeal in an unfree form that tends toward violence. -Theodor Adorno
War, violence and death have become the organizing principle of governance and culture in the United States as we move into the second decade of the 21st century. Lacking a language for the social good, the very concept of the social as a space in which justice, equality, social protections and a responsibility to the other mediate everyday life is being refigured through a spectacle of violence and cruelty.
Under such circumstances, ethical considerations and social costs are removed from market-driven policies and values just as images of human suffering are increasingly abstracted from not only their social and political contexts, but also the conditions that make such suffering possible.
Moreover, as public issues collapse into privatized considerations, matters of agency, responsibility and ethics are now framed within the discourse of extreme individualism.
Unexpected violence, aggression and the "'masculine' virtues of toughness, strength, decisiveness and determination ... are accentuated," along with the claims of vengeance, militarization and violence.(1) The collapse of the social and the formative culture that make human bonds possible is now outmatched by the rise of a Darwinian ethic of greed and self-interest in which violence, aggressiveness and sadism have become the primary metric for living and dying. As the social contract is replaced by social collapse, a culture of depravity has emerged in American society. The spectacle of violence permeates every aspect of the machinery of cultural production and screen culture - extending from television news and reality TV to the latest Hollywood fare. Of course, this is not new. What is new is that more and more people desire spectacles of high-intensity violence and images of death, mutilation and suffering and their desires should no longer be attributed to an individual aberration, but instead suggest an increasingly widespread social pathology.
Death and violence have become the mediating link between US domestic policy - the state's treatment of its own citizens - and foreign policy, between the tedium of ever expanding workdays and the thrill of sadistic release. Disposable bodies now waste away in American prisons, schools and shelters just as they litter the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. America has become a permanent warfare state, with a deep investment in a cultural politics and the corollary cultural apparatuses that legitimate and sanctify its machinery of death. The American public's fascination with violence and death is evident in the recent popular obsession with high-octane action films, along with the ever-expanding volume of vampire and zombie films, TV shows and books. We also see death-dealing and violent acts accrue popularity with Hollywood films such as the 2010 academy-award winning "The Hurt Locker," in which the American bomb disposal expert, William James (Jeremy Renner), repeatedly puts himself at risk in the face of defusing various bomb threats - thus to highlight the filmmaker's concern with a growing "addiction" to war. As Mark Featherstone points out, there is more represented here than the reckless behavior of immature and hyper-masculine soldiers. He writes, "James takes unnecessary risks and lives for the limit experience.... [H]e feels most alive when he is closest to death ... When James ... throws the bomb suit away and stands before the bomb with no protection, he puts himself at the mercy of the bomb, the embodiment of the death drive."(2)
"The Hurt Locker" is only one of a number of serious films that address, if not mirror, a psychological state in which the production of a virulent masculinity now augurs both a pathological relationship with the body, pain and violence and a disdain for compassion, human rights and social justice. The death drive in American society has become one of its fundamental characteristics and, undoubtedly, its most disabling pathology. More than a trace of this mode of aggression and moral indifference now dominates contemporary American life. Marked by a virulent notion of hardness and aggressive masculinity, a culture of depravity has become commonplace in a society in which pain, humiliation and abuse are condensed into digestible spectacles of violence endlessly circulated through extreme sports, reality TV, video games, YouTube postings and proliferating forms of the new and old media. But the ideology of hardness and the economy of pleasure it justifies are also present in the material relations of power that have intensified since the Reagan presidency, when a shift in government policies first took place and set the stage for the emergence of an unchecked regime of torture and state violence under the Bush-Cheney regime. Conservative and liberal politicians alike now spend millions waging wars around the globe, funding the largest military state in the world, providing huge tax benefits to the ultra-rich and major corporations, and all the while draining public coffers, increasing the scale of human poverty and misery and eliminating all viable public spheres - whether they be the social state, public schools, public transportation, or any other aspect of a formative culture that addresses the needs of the common good.
Mainstream politicians now call for cutbacks in public funding in order to address the pressing problems of the very deficit they not only created, but gladly embrace, since it provides an excuse either to drastically reduce funding for vital entitlements such as Medicare and early childhood education or to privatize public education, transportation, and other public services, while putting more money into the hands of the rich and powerful. The real deficit here is one of truth and morality. The politics of austerity has now become a discourse for eviscerating the social state and forcing upon cities, families and individuals previously unimaginable levels of precarity, suffering and insecurity. As Rania Khalek points out, conservatives want to "exploit the budget crisis in order to starve government…. The truth is that the economic crisis, sparked by decades of deregulation and greedy financial forms, caused high levels of unemployment that dramatically reduced state and local tax revenues. Add to that years of tax cuts for the wealthy and decades of corporate tax-dodging and you've got yourself a budget crisis."(3) The discourse of "deficit porn" now justifies the shift in public policy and state funding further away from providing social protections and safeguarding civil liberties toward the establishment of legislative programs intent on promoting shared fears and increasing disciplinary modes of governance that rely on the criminalization of social problems.(4)
The broader cultural turn toward the death drive and the strange economy of desire it produces is also evident in the emergence of a culture of depravity in which the American public appears more and more amenable to deriving pleasure from images that portray gratuitous violence and calamity. As mentioned above, exaggerated violence now rules screen culture. The public pedagogy of entertainment includes extreme images of violence, human suffering and torture splashed across giant movie screens, some in 3D, offering viewers every imaginable portrayal of violent acts, each more shocking and brutal than the last. The growing taste for sadism can be seen in the recent fascination on the part of the media with Peter Moskos' book "In Defense of Flogging," in which the author seriously proposes that prisoners be given a choice between a standard sentence and a number of lashes administered in public.(5) In the name of reform, Moskos argues, without any irony, that public flogging is more honest and a sure-fire way of reducing the prison population. Not only is this book being given massive air time in the mainstream media, but its advocacy of corporal punishment and flogging is treated as if it is a legitimate proposal for reform. Mind-crushing punishment is presented as the only choice left for prisoners outside of serving their sentences. Moreover, this medieval type of punishment inflicts pain on the body as part of a public spectacle. Moskos seems to miss how the legacy of slavery informs his proposal, given that flogging was one of the preferred punishments handed out to slaves and that 70 percent of all current prisoners in the United States are people of color. Surely, the next step will be a reality TV franchise in which millions tune in to watch public floggings. This is not merely barbarism parading as reform - it is also a blatant indicator of the degree to which sadism and the infatuation with violence have become normalized in a society that seems to take delight in dehumanizing itself. ... http://www.truth-out.org/reveling-pain-others-moral-degeneracy-and-violence-kill-team-photos/1308333080