Archive for the ‘Blogging’ Category

Learning to see like Maya: brutalizing the audience

December 17, 2012

Criticism has been voiced of the new film Zero Dark Thirty for its apparently lengthy and vivid depiction of torture.

A character is strung up by a rope, waterboarded, dragged around by a dog collar and stuffed into a cramped box in an attempt to extract information concerning a terrorist network. The viewer witnesses ‘animal-like howls of anguish’ and ‘unintentional defecation.’

Such scenes are part of a familiar revenge narrative in which the good guy’s (and audience’s) righteous motivation is established in the early scenes and the baddie is eliminated, exhilaratingly and bloodily, at the end.

A fan of the movie describes it approvingly:

[CIA counter-terrorism officer] Maya (Jessica Chastain), looks on — it seems to be her first “enhanced” interrogation. We see [tortured detainee] Amar’s treatment through her eyes, and though she appears troubled at first by what she’s witnessing she’s also fighting off any feelings of revulsion. “I’m fine,” she says, in response to doubts from the more seasoned interrogator who is running the show. During a subsequent torture scene, Maya is left alone with Amar. He begs her for mercy; she tells him, “You can help yourself by being truthful.” Now we know for sure that she has steeled herself to be cold and hard—that she’s consumed with tracking down Osama Bin Laden and is willing to do whatever it takes to find the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks (which have been evoked hauntingly during the movie’s opening moments).

When Amar is led around by a dog collar and then finally, horribly stuffed into a tiny wooden box, we recoil at this treatment and feel Amar’s pain—but we also feel Maya’s sense of urgency. At the end of the interrogation scenes, I felt shaken but not morally repulsed, because the movie had successfully led me to adopt, if only temporarily, Maya’s point of view: This treatment is a legitimate way of securing information vital to U.S. interests.

Critics have deplored this as ‘endorsement’ of torture.

In response, some Democrat bloggers, posing as sophisticated aesthetes, have accused such critics of Zhdanovite philistinism, of ‘aesthetic Stalinism’ and of behaviour befitting ‘Bill Donoghue and the Catholic League’. (Nobody yet has applied the ‘moral panic’ label, whose use I described here.)

These bloggers identify themselves as liberals who would never support torture but who know how to appreciate a good film when they see one.

Meanwhile, according to film critics, the ‘morality brigade’ has failed to appreciate how the film’s hero is portrayed as ‘morally compromised’. The torture scenes are ‘squalid, vivid and brutally protracted’, and they generate a ‘horrible sense of complicity’ among the audience ‘when we realize we want the guy they’re interrogating to spill the beans and get it over with’:

There can’t be much question that the filmmakers mean this to be distressing and tarnishing, not something to cheer for.

Another film critic, seeking to rebut the pro-torture accusation, solemnly declares: ‘fleeting shots of Maya clenching her jaw, crossing her arms, and looking away, should leave no doubt as to where the filmmakers stand on the issue.’

Whether a film openly ‘endorses’ torture, or whether it styles itself as a Funny Games-type ‘critical examination’ of cinematic and real-world violence, is not irrelevant.

(Of course, in making Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, a former ‘embedded’ reporter who wrote The Hurt Locker, were granted ‘top-level access’ to White House, Defense Department, and CIA sources, as well as assistance from a commander of the Navy SEAL team that executed Osama bin Laden. Pentagon officials described their wish to ‘shape the story’ of the film, and expressed their satisfaction that Bigelow and Boal were using ‘White House-approved talking points’.)

To focus on this question is, however, to miss the deeper point.

What does it mean when world-weary film critics accuse Glenn Greenwald of interpretive incompetence, of failing to evaluate the torture scenes using aesthetic criteria rather than judging them on political or good-taste grounds?

When watched by a ‘naive’ or novice viewer, ‘graphically intense’ on-screen violence elicits a stress response. Activation of the HPA axis leads to increased heart rate, galvanic skin response, dilated pupils, uncontrolled breathing, and sometimes trembling, clenching, nausea and other physiological symptoms of arousal.

Attending to such unfamiliar and unpleasant symptoms (and to associated emotions) makes demands upon the viewer’s scarce cognitive resources and thereby distracts him from the film. (Put differently but equivalently, focusing on the non-violent aspects of the film requires effort rather than happening automatically.)

With the experienced viewer, who has become accustomed to doses of cinematic violence, this stress response is inhibited. Rather than triggering anxiety or overwhelming distress, such visual and auditory cues (gaping wounds, blood, screams) generate a manageable kind of excitement, heightened attention or amusement.

Familiarity thus allows what is known as perceptual fluency – in which ‘easy’ processing, born of repeated exposure, enables a favourable affective response to a presented stimulus.

The positive evaluative judgements of film critics are underpinned by their familiarity with the visual material and the consequent ease with which they process it. Repeated exposure facilitates liking of a stimulus, generating a positive appraisal of what initially may have been neutral or even aversive. (Thus the manipulation of consumers by advertisers pursuing brand recognition: familiarity enhances product preference.)

Indeed, viewers of mainstream films, TV and video games undergo a kind of stress inoculation. Having been exposed repeatedly to doses of horrific brutality, and having become habituated to them, the cinematic adept or initiate is imparted with a newly found tolerance during subsequent encounters. He or she gradually acquires resilience – an attenuated stress response – because it’s all been seen before.

This adaptation to aversive stressors also describes the kind of ‘hardening’ undergone by the character Maya. What initially are novel and unpleasant stimuli (the sights, sounds and smells of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’) rapidly become familiar, and she can ‘steel herself  to be cold and hard’ (although developing this sort of emotional resilience in its recruits is something imparted by training and by self-selection of Washington’s military death squads and CIA torturers).

To be capable of appreciating films that expose viewers to realistic violence, audiences and critics must (like Maya) have ‘steeled’ themselves.

Only once this state has been reached, i.e. after they have been brutalized by repeated exposure, can viewers appreciate what they are seeing on other levels or derive pleasure from it. Thereafter violence can be enjoyed in several ways.

What is required from the audience of a Quentin Tarantino film is self-conscious savviness: getting the allusion, generic reference or cinematic in-joke. (This is what allows such films to function as a signal of the audience’s quality – acquiring competence, being able to appreciate them, requires a costly investment of time, effort or money that cannot easily be faked. Self-congratulation is one of the rewards of such films.)

Violent ‘anti-violence’ films such as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and ‘deconstructed’ shooter games such as Spec Ops: The Line, which hope to ‘implicate’ the viewer or player, also demand a ‘competent’ audience, i.e. one that can appreciate it on the ‘right level’, get the message or appreciate the style without being distracted by their repugnance or feeling too sick to watch. (Haneke has said that his ‘ideal scene’ would impel members of an audience to look away because they are ‘panicking’.)

And, viewed with enough aesthetic distance, Zero Dark Thirty‘s ‘squalid, vivid and brutally protracted’ torture scenes, its ‘morally compromised’ protagonist, the blood, bestial howls and involuntary defecation, and the ‘horrible sense of complicity’ generated among its audience, can be understood, like The Hurt Locker, as some sort of nuanced critical statement on ‘the moral, psychological and even spiritual price’ of war, the ‘sacrifices and costs of keeping America safe.’

In other words, the aesthetic and commercial ambitions of these films depend upon, just as the films themselves help create, an enormous oversupply of media violence. The latter produces ‘literate’ viewers of the required sort.

This desensitization of audiences has broader social correlates and consequences. By brutalizing consumers of media and entertainment products, it is helping to encourage a shift in social norms, internalized preferences and individual tastes.

Increasingly, perpetrating lethal violence or enjoying it for entertainment purposes does not lead to ostracism or sanction, but is positively rewarded (c.f. Bigelow and Boal’s reverence for the armed forces, the CIA and the ‘American triumph, both heroic and nonpartisan’, of killing Bin Laden).

Over time, this mix of incentives and cultural influences is causing a shift in the population distribution of attitudes to violence and the psychological traits needed to undertake it.

For the average person, this general shift is scarcely observable: it merely makes the median viewer more resilient (i.e. less prone to negative emotional states) when horrific violence appears on the movie screen.

But a rightward shift in the tolerance for violence will also increase the number of people at the sparsely inhabited tail (i.e. the extreme upper range) of the population distribution: those psychological outliers with the capacity to kill people and undertake torture while remaining composed, emotionally stable and task-oriented.

This outcome is functional for the US ruling elite, which for the past two decades has advanced its strategic objectives through belligerence and lethal violence. The state leadership’s policy of military aggression is facilitated by population-wide habituation to violence.

The likes of Bigelow and Boal are thus participating in a war drive. So too are the countless film critics, writers, bloggers, academics and paid ideologues whose own set of professional incentives leads them to apologize for her work and other products like it.

Tarantino, of course, has always disclaimed any extra-aesthetic relevance for the torture and sadism shown in his films. They are just movies. Few have bothered to challenge this line over the past two decades, even as sinister musings on torture by Alan Dershowitz became publicly acceptable fodder for ‘liberal’ editorial columns, and the creative efforts of John Yoo were taken on as policy by the US Justice Department.

Now, with his Django Unchained due to be released one week after Zero Dark Thirty, will its torture scenes be judged worth of comment? Will critics note the resemblance of Tarantino’s various sadists to Bigelow’s interrogators (and to the real-life versions working in Bagram, Cairo, the West Bank, the basements of Mogadishu, etc.)?

If so, will this be thought to mean anything, or will any such suggestion be dismissed as embarrassingly unsophisticated?


Some more depressing nonsense

August 18, 2010

Echoes of the Shirley Sherrod farce continue to carom down the narrow, shared corridors of the ‘left’ PC and extreme-right wingnut world, the sound decaying ever so slowly.

A month on, and another resident has been stirred from a fitful sleep, murmured crankily to himself, then slipped on his gown and stepped outside to remonstrate with the neighbours.

The US International Socialist Organization has been moved to rebuke the NAACP:

NAACP officials [says the ISO] continued to insist that they measure “civil and human rights with one yardstick.” The organization released a statement in which it claimed a “zero-tolerance policy against racial discrimination, whether practiced by Blacks, whites or any other group.”

These attempts to equate as racist acts “practiced by Blacks, whites or any other groups” distort who the historic and contemporary victims of racism in this country are.


This history is the reason why the NAACP denouncing “all racism” is confusing and misleading.

From the International Socialist tendency’s UK branch office, Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb then chimed in: ‘Racism does not cut both ways, and it cannot. By definition.’

In response to a comment, Seymour expanded on his ex-cathedra pronouncement:

It isn’t about whether black and Asian people can be racist toward one another.  That’s a far more complex discussion, and I wouldn’t haggle over the examples you give.

The “racism cuts both ways” meme asserts that white people are the victims of racism.  There is nowhere where this is actually the case, though it is not impossible that it should happen – it was an aim of Japanese imperialism during WWII to invert white world supremacy, for example.

But the reason they can assert that “racism cuts both ways” is because of the model of race implied by the statement itself.  If we understand racism as a hierarchical political-economic structure, not merely a prejudice, then of course it’s simply nonsensical to say it cuts both ways.  It’s like saying “misogyny cuts both ways”, or “homophobia cuts both ways”…

[Barring] a dramatic inversion of the global system, white people by definition cannot be the victims of racism.

In the synoptic scripture of identity-politics Marxism (as the saying goes, the adjective doesn’t so much modify as cancel the noun), maybe the prophet’s famous letter on divisions in the working class has been edited to read like this:

Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians.

The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A..

The Irishman – god bless him! – is as an oppressed person immune to chauvinist appeals. The very idea that the Irishman could, say, “pay the English worker back with interest in his own money” is a priori nonsensical, like saying “exploitation cuts both ways”.

Deplorably, it is the public official and Obama supporter Shirley Sherrod who – in the initial speech that prompted the contrived ‘outrage’ from extreme right elements – shows more fidelity to Marx – despite elements of confusion and simplification – than does Seymour and his fellow pseudo-socialists:

Well, working with him [a ‘white’ farmer] made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t. You know, and they could be black, and they could be white, they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people — those who don’t have access the way others have.

I want to just share something with you and I think it helps to — you know, when I learned this, I’m like, oh, my goodness. You know, back in the late 17th and 18th century, black — there were black indentured servants and white indentured servants, and they all would work for seven years and get their freedom. And they didn’t see any difference in each other — nobody worried about skin color. They married each other. You know, these were poor whites and poor blacks in the same boat, except they were slaves, but they were both slaves and both had their opportunity to work out on the slavery.

But then they started looking at the injustices that they faced and started then trying — you know, the people with money — you know, they started — the poor whites and poor blacks — they — you know, they married each other. They lived together. They were just like we would be. And they started looking at what was happening to them and decided we need to do something about it — you know, about this. Well, the people with money, the elite, decided, hey, we need to do something here to divide them.

So that’s when they made black people servants for life. That’s when the put laws in place forbidding them to marry each other. That’s when they created the racism that we know of today. They did it to keep us divided. And they — it started working so well, they said, gosh, looks like we’ve come up on something here that can last generations — and here we are. Over 400 years later, and it’s still working. What we have to do is get that out of our heads. There is no difference between us.

The only difference is that the folks with money want to stay in power and whether it’s health care or whatever it is, they’ll do what they need to do to keep that power.


November 18, 2009

It’s a commonplace of bien-pensant opinion columns that the internet is short on manners: frenzied mobs of pseudonymous bloggers operating beyond the normal reach of social control, ‘nameless and faceless’, without the ‘constraints of every day [sic] decency and politeness’.

In this tale (c/o, in this instance, Clive Hamilton and Monica Dux), norms are enforced by either Leviation or ‘the social gaze’, external instruments which when absent yield a Hobbesian nightmare of virtual lynchings and porn addiction. ‘Home alone in front of my computer’, with my fake online identity, what’s to stop me acting like an abusive jerk?

Maybe we’re all just nasty churls: read a comment thread at random, and it will seem pretty plausible.

This folk account is captured by several notions from biology and behavioural science.

Reciprocal altruism is said to exist in the case of long-term, repeated dyadic interactions between self-regarding individuals, where if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours — a tit-for-tat relationship that benefits both parties. Say I visit the village grocer once every week: he could cheat today by giving me rotten oranges in exchange for my good money, and I could benefit by giving him counterfeit coins, but neither of us will, because we need to interact again next Wednesday.

Indirect reciprocity, on the other hand, requires third-party observation or reputation effects to impose similar obligations. Not personal but community enforcement occurs, via relatives, neighbours or members of the same group: if it becomes known that I shafted that poor grocer, nobody in the village will be willing to sell me fruit again. A person’s ‘good name’ functions to others as a signal of their trustworthiness.

In our account of cyberspace, however, there are few repeated interactions, and no reliable signals: ‘no one need know your name’ (Dux). This leads inexorably to mutual defection: bloggers can find a wider niche or even a mass audience by publicly towelling some poor, defenceless tenured academic or published author. Commenters derive symbolic compensation by taking down some big shot.  And the victim has no means of recourse, because the exchange is anonymous.

In the absence of reputation effects, so the story goes, every online interaction between individuals is essentially a one-shot affair, with no possibility of future punishment or honest signalling to reduce the incentive for hostility, aggression etc. The outcome resembles something out of Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of War of the Worlds, where an alien attack obliterates all human institutions and replaces them with a state of nature — hysterical mobs governed only by the law of the jungle, the war of all against all, willing to tear a little girl (Dakota Fanning) from her father’s car just to save themselves.

Are we churlish bloggers, then, planning to behave like that that mob? Will Churls Gone Wild involve pointless venting, nasty ad hominem attacks, personal vendettas and all the things that so mar ‘the quality of debate in the blogosphere’ (Dux, bis)?

Almost certainly, to speak only of my own contributions. There are plenty of people who deserve it. But hopefully not too often: it would soon grow dreary for author and reader.

And that’s really the point here: the blog format has proved itself a robust form of communication and debate, despite some apparently obvious flaws, because:

  1. Blogs involve assortative interactions: audiences are self-selecting, with a bias towards those who share their interests or opinions.
  2. The marginal payoff to troublemakers falls pretty steeply over time, as boredom sets in or people learn to ignore them.
  3. The intellectual pretensions of the debate participants (authors, commenters) can be immediately interrogated.
  4. There’s not a lot of money involved, so the incentive to write bullshit is limited.

In short, we trust our readers and ourselves. You don’t need to provide us with your full name and contact details, and nor do we, for things to work. (On the other hand, newspapers are not nearly so resilient to bad behaviour, because items 3 and 4 don’t apply there.)

The churls can run wild, and it won’t evince a ‘lowering of standards’ (Dux, al segno).

Instead hopefully, it will involve ceorls, the lowborn, the sans culottes, confronting the numbing blandishments of the media, the lies of Rudd and Obama, the stuff that makes us all so angry that not to respond would send us mad.