Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Violence & Attention

My friend Jorge Riveros forwarded me an opinion piece that was published in the Washington Post shortly after what's come to be known as the "Virginia Tech massacre." In "What the Killers Want," novelist Lionel Shriver reflects on Cho Seung-Hui's demand for media attention in an almost unprecedented display of posthumous self-indulgence and terror.

As you can read for yourself, Shriver's basic claim is that violent acts like Cho's are, in part, made possible -- even encouraged -- by a media culture that feeds off sensationalism and extorts emotional baggage. It's a culture that capitalizes on shock and awe even in the midst of tragedy. It's a culture that somehow validates "being seen" at any cost. Shriver writes, "In an era that has lost touch with the distinction between fame and infamy, so driving is the need to be noticed -- for any reason -- that even posthumous attention will do."

What I like about Shriver's piece is that it doesn't shy away from asking tough, critical questions about the way we've received news about this no doubt horrific event -- how it's been framed, in what ways we are led to crave more information, and so on. Of course it's not that we shouldn't receive news about unpleasant events at all; the issue, rather, is how to avoid legitimating (by consuming) the very culture of media sensationalism that contributed to Cho's belief that he really could be a quasi-martyr. Much attention has been given to the influence violent Japanese manga and the South Korean film Oldboy might have had on Cho. But perhaps the better analogy is to Oliver Stone's satire Natural Born Killers, in which a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde go on a killing spree that the media covers obsessively and effectively wants to go on.

Shriver is less convincing, I think, when she says there's absolutely nothing that can change this culture of media sensationalism. It's highly unlikely (a "pipe dream"), she says, that the media will cease giving "blanket coverage and banner headlines" to these killers. And because, thankfully, we don't live in a police state (though the post-9/11, Patriot Act States would seem to challenge that assumption), the simple fact of the matter is that "Whenever we walk out the door, we take the chance that malice will rain on our heads."

It may be the case that nothing can change the media's voracious efforts to "grab" the audience's attention, no matter what the cost. But if this is the case, it seems to me much more effort should be put into media education -- that is, learning to observe, consume, and participate in media as critical subjects. A key component of this type of knowledge, I would argue, is the Marxian/Debordian understanding that consumer society renders us alienated subjects and has the potential to exhaust our ability to rely on ourselves, and each other (i.e., human contact), for emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical sustenance. Whenever we don't feel sustained in our human relationships, we turn to sundry consumer outlets -- not least mass media -- to again feel whole, or perhaps to be distracted for a while, or even to replace that lack with a fleeting desire (i.e., shopping).

In Cho's case, it's clear he had found "real life" to be so harsh and unwelcoming that he accepted he had no other choice but to stage a (posthumous) media frenzy that would grant him the attention he so desperately sought. Cho was, in short, a thoroughly alienated soul. Further pathologizing him as a "wacko" or "kook" or even a "South Korean," not American, national ("It's not us, good heavens!") neglects Cho's rather common affliction: wanting to be wanted in a hyperreal world.


McDonald said...

My Dear Friend:

My first words are an apollogie: I'm a awful english spoker (writer in this case) but I'm going to try to explain myself, without that Tarzan accent that I have.

When we are witness of this kind of butchery, we stay in shock, and automatically question our selfs why it happens.

I believe that there is two answers: the media responsibility and the education.

The media responsibility is a illusion, meanwhile Business & Information being married: media responsibility is as contradictory as “Protected Democracy”.
For the corporations this is a show,and they like this things, they win money using our fears and our pain.

The second issue is the education and a responsible parenthood, because they are the primary line against this mad acts.

But if we, as society, educate our child make them believe than violence is the only answer for any kind of problem... why are we impressed with Virginia Tech or Columbine?

See the more innocent movies, and every situation is solved with violence.

We are raised in a hate and intolerant culture, where the others life is not important. It seems stupid, but in every action movie, the last resource is to kill the bad guy, always, there's not another option.

That constant bombard make us, at the end, that other ones life is not as important as our troubles, and there is no way to solve them be kill each other, dressing all this idea with the illusion of a battle between good guys and evil guys; between justice and injustice (And in last years between Democracy and terrorism).

If one kid only see that, then he goes to his Playsation and kills as gangsters as he can, playing “San Andreas” or other kind of games, why we are impressed? Why we, as parents, did not do anythig agaist that. Beacuse is easiest let our child playing the game, than educate him.

There is a violent society that legitimize the use of violence (why everybody can buy a gun?... maybe the Englishes are going to take back USA and turn it a colony); where media use abuse of our fears; and with people who does not have responsibility in their acts.

Maybe there are a lot of other things that influenced in this special situation (psychological problems, etc), but I think that those two are the most important in the construction of a violent society.


Kinohi Nishikawa said...

Tarzan or not, you make several excellent points here, Marco. I think we fundamentally agree that it's a mistake to focus solely on Cho's psychological "problems." Our society is, as you note, completely saturated with violent media. At the same time, we rely more and more on such media to keep our children, and ourselves, occupied in our daily lives. The point of my post, then, was to question this increasing dependence on mass media to "complete" our self-image.

Sex and violence SELL, of course. In principle, I'm not averse to things like pornography or "violent" movies like 300 or Natural Born Killers. What I object to is interacting with these media without any measure of self-reflection and without any sense of there being world BEYOND what the media sells us.

As I grow older, I'm appreciating more and more the simple things in life: good food, good conversation; elemental human interaction among friends. We can talk about movies, we can talk about politics, we can talk about anything, but what remains important, for me, is that we are talking, face to face, as people who appreciate, first and foremost, each other's company. In these moments, like the times we got together in Santiago (at your house and at Nelson and Julie's), we are human and we are far from needing media to "complete" us.