Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0

A Good War Is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (2006)


34 posts in this topic

Posted (edited) · Report post

I'm finding this book to be a devastating read. The questions that Griffith asks are questions I'm not used to hearing. It does concern political topics, but it's focused on how art has affected our culture and our viewpoints on war and violence.

Film discussions in the book range from The Exorcist to The Godfather to A Clockwork Orange to Blue Velvet to Pulp Fiction, among others.

Authors and thinkers wrestled with in the book range from Flannery O'Connor, C.S. Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Hersey, Susan Sontag, William Faulkner, Bret Easton Ellis, to Chuck Palahniuk.

More on this soon ... I'm going to have to work through my thoughts on this one.

Edited by Persiflage

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

Adding it to my wish list. Ordering it now. I wasn't going to--the "shift from language to image" stuff in the write-up set my kneejerkiness into overdrive. But then I got to this part:

Accompanying the essays are illustrated facts about torture, lists of torture methods and their long-term effects, and graphics such as the schematics of the “pain pathways” in the human body. Together, the images and essays endow the human being with the complexity images alone deny.

--which really sounds like a more subtle sort of thing than the "image bad, words good" stuff I expected from the first couple of sentences.

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

Accompanying the essays are illustrated facts about torture, lists of torture methods and their long-term effects, and graphics such as the schematics of the “pain pathways” in the human body. Together, the images and essays endow the human being with the complexity images alone deny.

--which really sounds like a more subtle sort of thing than the "image bad, words good" stuff I expected from the first couple of sentences.

Yes, it's absolutely more than that. It's an exploration, not only of the power of images, but of how our responses to them reveal things to us about ourselves.

Here's a little portion of the book that I can't stop thinking about today -

pg. 100 -

The images of Abu Ghraib have been treated not as evidence of acts of sin and barbarity against other human beings but as pure deviance with no human origins except psychosis - a disordered brain. America’s response to atrocity on the part of its citizens has been to deny that those particular soldiers ‘speak for us’ or ‘represent’ the larger good America stands for. This is the most harmful response imaginable from a spiritual standpoint, revealing a profound misunderstanding of sin and evil.

pg. 100-101 -

In America, as in most cultures, evil, when found thriving in one’s midst is ‘an embarrassment, a thing that one should diplomatically distance themselves from,’ according to Reverend James Schall, S.J. - an instinctive reaction that has serious problems. To step back, to wash one’s hands of evil, is to ‘make possible precisely the opposite state to that which [the innocent bystander] desire. For they actually multiply evil by leaving the filed free to those who have little scruple with the good.’ Therefore, man cannot simply ‘withdraw’ from the evil world in some simple or naive fashion. For if one does not admit the possibility of the presence of God and evil in the same universe - which is logically what someone who wants nothing to do with evil really believes - only two alternatives remain. Either God does not exist or evil is something that can be removed by unaided human effort.

pg. 101 -

In general, Americans have been convinced that diplomacy and reconciliation are tactics of the weak, not the brave and the free - an outright denial of the grace of the Christian God extends to those who admit their sins and repent. Most Americans consider America a Christian nation in its promotion of life and liberty. But exactly whose lives and whose liberty is abundantly clear: Ours, not Theirs. By what distorted theology does this make America Christian?

pg. 101 -

As a kid, I always believed that Christianity and politics were separate and surely not equal. Issues of faith were never ever discussed, it being such a private subject. Faith had no bearing whatsoever on current events, unless it was to pity those who suffered far away, or even right under our noses. Any twinge of guilt or feeling of responsibility could be quickly snuffed out by the words of Jesus in Matthew 26:11: ‘The poor you will always have with you ...’ combined with a Puritanical belief that people must endure what is naturally, Providentially, theirs to endure. And they must do so with a smile and enormous gratitude for even being alive, and especially for being American. I came to believe that God had made some people poor and others rich, some handsome and others ugly for no other reason than to prove that He was in charge, when in fact, this is a heresy, a warped theological view that would by extension hold that 2 + 2 = 4 because God made it so. Grace has been shamed and muscled out of Christian faith in America in favor of a Manichean worldview that sees cultural orthodoxy aligned with Good and cultural grotesqueness aligned with Evil.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

Accompanying the essays are illustrated facts about torture, lists of torture methods and their long-term effects, and graphics such as the schematics of the “pain pathways” in the human body. Together, the images and essays endow the human being with the complexity images alone deny.

--which really sounds like a more subtle sort of thing than the "image bad, words good" stuff I expected from the first couple of sentences.

Yes, it's absolutely more than that. It's an exploration, not only of the power of images, but of how our responses to them reveal things to us about ourselves.

Here's a little portion of the book that I can't stop thinking about today -

pg. 100 -

The images of Abu Ghraib have been treated not as evidence of acts of sin and barbarity against other human beings but as pure deviance with no human origins except psychosis - a disordered brain. America’s response to atrocity on the part of its citizens has been to deny that those particular soldiers ‘speak for us’ or ‘represent’ the larger good America stands for. This is the most harmful response imaginable from a spiritual standpoint, revealing a profound misunderstanding of sin and evil.

pg. 100-101 -

In America, as in most cultures, evil, when found thriving in one’s midst is ‘an embarrassment, a thing that one should diplomatically distance themselves from,’ according to Reverend James Schall, S.J. - an instinctive reaction that has serious problems. To step back, to wash one’s hands of evil, is to ‘make possible precisely the opposite state to that which [the innocent bystander] desire. For they actually multiply evil by leaving the filed free to those who have little scruple with the good.’ Therefore, man cannot simply ‘withdraw’ from the evil world in some simple or naive fashion. For if one does not admit the possibility of the presence of God and evil in the same universe - which is logically what someone who wants nothing to do with evil really believes - only two alternatives remain. Either God does not exist or evil is something that can be removed by unaided human effort.

pg. 101 -

In general, Americans have been convinced that diplomacy and reconciliation are tactics of the weak, not the brave and the free - an outright denial of the grace of the Christian God extends to those who admit their sins and repent. Most Americans consider America a Christian nation in its promotion of life and liberty. But exactly whose lives and whose liberty is abundantly clear: Ours, not Theirs. By what distorted theology does this make America Christian?

pg. 101 -

As a kid, I always believed that Christianity and politics were separate and surely not equal. Issues of faith were never ever discussed, it being such a private subject. Faith had no bearing whatsoever on current events, unless it was to pity those who suffered far away, or even right under our noses. Any twinge of guilt or feeling of responsibility could be quickly snuffed out by the words of Jesus in Matthew 26:11: ‘The poor you will always have with you ...’ combined with a Puritanical belief that people must endure what is naturally, Providentially, theirs to endure. And they must do so with a smile and enormous gratitude for even being alive, and especially for being American. I came to believe that God had made some people poor and others rich, some handsome and others ugly for no other reason than to prove that He was in charge, when in fact, this is a heresy, a warped theological view that would by extension hold that 2 + 2 = 4 because God made it so. Grace has been shamed and muscled out of Christian faith in America in favor of a Manichean worldview that sees cultural orthodoxy aligned with Good and cultural grotesqueness aligned with Evil.

Wow. I have to say, this sounds fascinating, which is perhaps not the right word given the importance of it, but basically I'm saying, I want to read this.

Edited by Anders

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

Accompanying the essays are illustrated facts about torture, lists of torture methods and their long-term effects, and graphics such as the schematics of the “pain pathways” in the human body. Together, the images and essays endow the human being with the complexity images alone deny.

--which really sounds like a more subtle sort of thing than the "image bad, words good" stuff I expected from the first couple of sentences.

Yes, it's absolutely more than that. It's an exploration, not only of the power of images, but of how our responses to them reveal things to us about ourselves.

Here's a little portion of the book that I can't stop thinking about today -

pg. 100 -

The images of Abu Ghraib have been treated not as evidence of acts of sin and barbarity against other human beings but as pure deviance with no human origins except psychosis - a disordered brain. America’s response to atrocity on the part of its citizens has been to deny that those particular soldiers ‘speak for us’ or ‘represent’ the larger good America stands for. This is the most harmful response imaginable from a spiritual standpoint, revealing a profound misunderstanding of sin and evil.

That's some fascinating stuff. In a way, it's the reverse side of Žižek's commentary about the War on Terror. He talks about the tendency to ascribe irrational motives to people like bin Laden as a way to maintain America's faith in its own righteousness.

pg. 100-101 -

In America, as in most cultures, evil, when found thriving in one’s midst is ‘an embarrassment, a thing that one should diplomatically distance themselves from,’ according to Reverend James Schall, S.J. - an instinctive reaction that has serious problems. To step back, to wash one’s hands of evil, is to ‘make possible precisely the opposite state to that which [the innocent bystander] desire. For they actually multiply evil by leaving the filed free to those who have little scruple with the good.’ Therefore, man cannot simply ‘withdraw’ from the evil world in some simple or naive fashion. For if one does not admit the possibility of the presence of God and evil in the same universe - which is logically what someone who wants nothing to do with evil really believes - only two alternatives remain. Either God does not exist or evil is something that can be removed by unaided human effort.

pg. 101 -

In general, Americans have been convinced that diplomacy and reconciliation are tactics of the weak, not the brave and the free - an outright denial of the grace of the Christian God extends to those who admit their sins and repent. Most Americans consider America a Christian nation in its promotion of life and liberty. But exactly whose lives and whose liberty is abundantly clear: Ours, not Theirs. By what distorted theology does this make America Christian?

pg. 101 -

As a kid, I always believed that Christianity and politics were separate and surely not equal. Issues of faith were never ever discussed, it being such a private subject. Faith had no bearing whatsoever on current events, unless it was to pity those who suffered far away, or even right under our noses. Any twinge of guilt or feeling of responsibility could be quickly snuffed out by the words of Jesus in Matthew 26:11: ‘The poor you will always have with you ...’ combined with a Puritanical belief that people must endure what is naturally, Providentially, theirs to endure. And they must do so with a smile and enormous gratitude for even being alive, and especially for being American. I came to believe that God had made some people poor and others rich, some handsome and others ugly for no other reason than to prove that He was in charge, when in fact, this is a heresy, a warped theological view that would by extension hold that 2 + 2 = 4 because God made it so. Grace has been shamed and muscled out of Christian faith in America in favor of a Manichean worldview that sees cultural orthodoxy aligned with Good and cultural grotesqueness aligned with Evil.

I'm really anxious to get my hands on this book now....

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

Took it off my shelf today and started reading--halfway through now. It certainly lives up to the excerpts--and it continues to remind me of Žižek's Welcome to the Desert of the Real! in spots, mixed liberally with portions of David Dark.

I think his reading of Pulp Fiction is a bit unfair, though (and it actually cuts against his account of audience reaction to the movie). Still, it's hard to hold it against him when he makes such good use of Blue Velvet.

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

....And I finished it. It's certainly a moving book, but I couldn't help coming away a little disappointed. The requisite bullet list:

Liked:

1. This book is very well written--clear, moving, even devastating at times.

2. Griffith asks important questions and--apart from a couple of flirtations--admirably avoids easy or safe answers. This really is a book that believes that a meditative uncertainty can be fruitful.

3. Griffith's insights about bad apples, about scapegoating, about the forcible expulsion of sin from the body politic as a kind of unholy exorcism, are all very good and ring true to what I know about psychology (which is, admittedly, less than it should be).

Still, I couldn't help but be disappointed. I realize the book has a necessarily small scope, but I can't help but think that Griffith treats the American self-image with too little skepticism. I mean, the book is about challenging that narrative, and Griffith deals with lynching--but there's a whole history of betrayal there that Griffith doesn't so much as nod to. The idea of American Exceptionalism has always been a false front. There's a hint of this idea at the very end, but a more consistent recognition (or, perhaps, more explicit recognition) of the fact would do much, imho, do lift the book from "thought-provoking but light" to "excellent."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

The idea that America is not "exceptional" is something worth debating, although maybe not in this thread. I would think people of all political stripes and persuasions would agree that this country is exceptional in many ways. (And yes, I mean that in a positive way, not in an "we're exceptionally racist" way).

Don't have to be a stereotype to believe so.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

The idea that America is not "exceptional" is something worth debating, although maybe not in this thread. I would think people of all political stripes and persuasions would agree that this country is exceptional in many ways. (And yes, I mean that in a positive way, not in an "we're exceptionally racist" way).

Don't have to be a stereotype to believe so.

I believe the notion of American Exceptionalism isn't a mere suggestion that the United States is exceptional in some ways (most countries are, and the USA is in many ways, and I say this as a Canadian), but rather the idea that America holds a special place in history and thus has special rights to act in ways that other countries do not.

Edited by Anders

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

The idea that America is not "exceptional" is something worth debating, although maybe not in this thread. I would think people of all political stripes and persuasions would agree that this country is exceptional in many ways. (And yes, I mean that in a positive way, not in an "we're exceptionally racist" way).

Don't have to be a stereotype to believe so.

I believe the notion of American Exceptionalism isn't a mere suggestion that the United States is exceptional in some ways (most countries are, and the USA is in many ways, and I say this as a Canadian), but rather the idea that America holds a special place in history and thus has special rights to act in ways that other countries do not.

Exactly. America-as-exceptional lies in rich cultural traditions, in the Blues and in uniquely American forms of expression and humor. And, certainly, the American experiment is exceptional in many ways (though the imagination often exceeds the reality--a point Griffith hints at). American Exceptionalism, on the other hand--at least, as I understand it--is much more closely tied to notions of Manifest Destiny and to the idea that the American way of life is exceptionally moral or exceptionally enlightened--which, given the nation's treatment of indigenous peoples, slaves, and women, is certainly not the case.

My issue with Griffith is that he motions toward this idea, but he doesn't really draw it out in any sort of clear or definable manner.

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

My review of this book is halfway written, by the way. I'm hoping to get back to it and finish it soon.

I think his reading of Pulp Fiction is a bit unfair, though (and it actually cuts against his account of audience reaction to the movie). Still, it's hard to hold it against him when he makes such good use of Blue Velvet.

I don't agree with his take on Pulp Fiction either, but his point seems to be the same one that he makes a couple other times in the book when explaining the reactions of his students to examples of satire. He says something similar with how the majority of his students miss the nuances of the cultural commentary in the writing of Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis. They savor the salacious or obscene details without even bothering to think about what the author is doing. It's almost as if the reaction of most his friends (their quoting and love of the scenes and the profane dialogue in Pulp Fiction) has ruined, for Griffin, the ability to find anything redemptive in what are, for me if not for all my friends, amazingly redemptive aspects of the film. I can see how it's the same for Palahniuk. I don't think most fans of Fight Club like Fight Club for the same reasons that I do. A cultivated (or mindlessly desensitized) love for violence can blind you to the deeper meaning in a well crafted work of satire. There is something about our culture that is on the level of valuing Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal only because one finds the very idea of cannibalism funny.

....And I finished it. It's certainly a moving book, but I couldn't help coming away a little disappointed. The requisite bullet list:

Liked:

1. This book is very well written--clear, moving, even devastating at times.

2. Griffith asks important questions and--apart from a couple of flirtations--admirably avoids easy or safe answers. This really is a book that believes that a meditative uncertainty can be fruitful.

3. Griffith's insights about bad apples, about scapegoating, about the forcible expulsion of sin from the body politic as a kind of unholy exorcism, are all very good and ring true to what I know about psychology (which is, admittedly, less than it should be).

Still, I couldn't help but be disappointed. I realize the book has a necessarily small scope, but I can't help but think that Griffith treats the American self-image with too little skepticism. I mean, the book is about challenging that narrative, and Griffith deals with lynching--but there's a whole history of betrayal there that Griffith doesn't so much as nod to. The idea of American Exceptionalism has always been a false front. There's a hint of this idea at the very end, but a more consistent recognition (or, perhaps, more explicit recognition) of the fact would do much, imho, do lift the book from "thought-provoking but light" to "excellent."

There are absolutely a whole number of directions and explorations that I kept thinking Griffin was heading towards that he never ended up doing more than hinting at. I don't think I dislike the book for this reason. On the contrary, it opens and suggests a whole number of questions - some of which are questions I've never even heard asked before. It's a small and a short little book. In fact, my impression is a little bit the opposite of yours because I find Griffin to be a little too skeptical about some, of what I believe are, fundamental American (or at least politically philosophical) ideals. I will explore this further in my book review. But, for example, the idea of American Exceptionalism can be a false front and is often abused, but that doesn't mean there isn't still a reasonable, moderate and principled position that acknowledges that the United States has taken some stands for things held to be true unlike quite anything any other nation before has taken historically. These stands have inevitably and occasionally led to war.

The willingness to engage in war, the desensitization of violence, and the art resulting from and exploring said violence are all topics Griffin is intensely interested in. But sometimes he takes a position on them and sometimes he only asks questions about them. I'll come up with some examples when I have more time.

The fact that we engage in scapegoating, the fact that we engage in trying to (through political power) expunge sins from our society, the fact that we excuse the violence or evil that is practiced in the name of a good cause (or, which is worse, don't even see the need to excuse it) are all facts about ourselves that lead to further conclusions. It is exploring these further conclusions that Griffin is definitely interested in, but I don't get the sense that he's finished with them. He's been making progress, and this book tracks his intellectual and moral progress in a clear and provocative way. But the progression is by no means at an end by the time that you reach the end of the book.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

A cultivated (or mindlessly desensitized) love for violence can blind you to the deeper meaning in a well crafted work of satire.

Or perhaps the work is crafted in such a way that its indulgences actually undermine or overshadow the story's "deeper meaning."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

A cultivated (or mindlessly desensitized) love for violence can blind you to the deeper meaning in a well crafted work of satire.

Or perhaps the work is crafted in such a way that its indulgences actually undermine or overshadow the story's "deeper meaning."

True. A distinction worth keeping in mind. I think there are satirical works of both sorts.

For example, Griffin writes (pg. 95):

But my students, who were mostly male, rarely shared my tastes. The majority favored Bret Easton Ellis and Churck Palahniuk, writers who specialize in the kind of violence and obscenity found on cable, albeit with - it would seem - tongues firmly planted in cheek ... But after two years of homages to these writers - even though I believe imitation to be one of the best ways to teach writing - it became clear to me that my students didn’t hear the irony in Ellis’s and Palahniuk’s voices. I seriously questioned whether the popularity of these writers was due to what they saw as prophetic depictions of how American culture creates moral monsters, or how capitalist culture perverts American decency. There was no substance. No second layer. For the most part, their stories read like bad movie scripts: scant exposition; cliched dialogue; coincidence-driven plots; beautiful, shapely and easy women; improbable sex and violence.

On Pulp Fiction, he says (pgs. 72-73):

The humor precludes any deeper meaning. Few moviegoers seriously contemplate the meaning of the passage from Ezekiel: "the righteous man is beset on all sides" by the "inquity of evil men." No one really considers why Butch goes back to save Marsellus Wallace from being raped and almost certainly killed by "hillbilly rapists", or why a beautiful and charming woman like Mia would want to marry a murderous thug like Marsellus Wallace in the first place. Why? Because nobody is interested in why. The movie doesn’t invite any of these questions ... No one believes that Jules has witnessed a miracle - that God came down and stopped the bullets - but it’s fun to hear him rationalize it because it’s fun to hear Samuel L. Jackson talk.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

I'm reminded of a David Foster Wallace quote:

"If what’s always distinguished bad writing— flat characters, a narrative world that’s clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.— is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then [bret Easton] Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it."

On Pulp Fiction, he says (pgs. 72-73):

The humor precludes any deeper meaning. Few moviegoers seriously contemplate the meaning of the passage from Ezekiel: "the righteous man is beset on all sides" by the "inquity of evil men." No one really considers why Butch goes back to save Marsellus Wallace from being raped and almost certainly killed by "hillbilly rapists", or why a beautiful and charming woman like Mia would want to marry a murderous thug like Marsellus Wallace in the first place. Why? Because nobody is interested in why. The movie doesn’t invite any of these questions ... No one believes that Jules has witnessed a miracle - that God came down and stopped the bullets - but it’s fun to hear him rationalize it because it’s fun to hear Samuel L. Jackson talk.

And he's more or less right, because PULP FICTION, along with all of Tarantino's works, lacks humanity and conviction.

Edited by Ryan H.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

Warning: Wall of Text

There is something about our culture that is on the level of valuing Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal only because one finds the very idea of cannibalism funny.

I'm not totally convinced of that, myself--but two points for pithiness. B)

There are absolutely a whole number of directions and explorations that I kept thinking Griffin was heading towards that he never ended up doing more than hinting at. I don't think I dislike the book for this reason. On the contrary, it opens and suggests a whole number of questions - some of which are questions I've never even heard asked before. It's a small and a short little book. In fact, my impression is a little bit the opposite of yours because I find Griffin to be a little too skeptical about some, of what I believe are, fundamental American (or at least politically philosophical) ideals. I will explore this further in my book review. But, for example, the idea of American Exceptionalism can be a false front and is often abused, but that doesn't mean there isn't still a reasonable, moderate and principled position that acknowledges that the United States has taken some stands for things held to be true unlike quite anything any other nation before has taken historically. These stands have inevitably and occasionally led to war.

The problem is that these stands are nearly always undercut by America itself. If you say American Exceptionalism rests in the uncommon ability to give lip-service to some ideals while doing precisely the opposite--then, yeah. Of all nations, America has most surely kissed the Blarney Stone. But my objection--and Griffith's objection, as far as I can tell--is that this is a mode of self-delusion, of image-maintenance. America needs to forget the Native Americans and slaves; why else should we be so eager to get into a "post-racial" society? It needs to forget in order to maintain the illusion that it has always been on the side of freedom against tyranny. It needs to forget those pictures from Abu Ghraib, and the reports from Gitmo, and any number of other allegations from black sites around the world so that it can continue to assure itself that it is on the side of the angels.

Again, Griffith hints at this but I think he pulls short. Lynching in the American South is only the tip of the iceberg; this tension goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson's condemnation of slavery--fine words, good ideals, but no action.

The fact that we engage in scapegoating, the fact that we engage in trying to (through political power) expunge sins from our society, the fact that we excuse the violence or evil that is practiced in the name of a good cause (or, which is worse, don't even see the need to excuse it) are all facts about ourselves that lead to further conclusions. It is exploring these further conclusions that Griffin is definitely interested in, but I don't get the sense that he's finished with them. He's been making progress, and this book tracks his intellectual and moral progress in a clear and provocative way. But the progression is by no means at an end by the time that you reach the end of the book.

Agreed. I think my disappointment rests largely in a failure on my part to read the book as it was intended to be read. The result is rather like the fella who read Blue Like Jazz expecting a theology textbook.

FWIW, I find Griffith's insights into scapegoating to be very similar to the idea of projection: that we project our guilt and fear onto some Other in order to maintain our own self image. In this case, the singling out of the offenders at Abu Ghraib functions as a way for the U.S. to maintain its own illusion that it is fighting for freedom while at the same time symbolically punishing its own wrongdoings. If we can say that the torturers are a few "bad apples" we don't have to consider whether the tree itself might be a bad tree. [FWIW, Žižek made a similar observation in 2004]. (Of course, there's a more practical political point here: that Liddie England et al function as scapegoats for a certain group of men who managed to foist the blame for their decisions on to a few "bad apples" and, for the most part, wholly escape public censure/punishment themselves). [i hasten to add that the actions of the current administration in seeking to block further revelations is in lock-step with the previous administration i/r/t image-control etc.]

Stepping back a bit, we can see the exact same thing going on throughout U.S. history, where al-Qaeda--and "terror" in general--becomes a screen on to which we project uncertainties about the U.S.'s place in the world, or where the Soviet Union becomes the freedom-hating enemy to freedom-loving [but McCarthyite] America. That's not to say that al-Qaeda or the Soviet Union weren't/aren't bad ideas, but that in popular discourse they are so totally Othered that they function less as real-world entities and more as symbolic representations of Dark America.

Stepping forward a bit, which is where I think Griffith really wants to take us, there is a sense in which the torturers function for individual Americans as projected Others. We--as individuals--regard ourselves as good people and like to think that in that situation we would never do the things we see in the photographs. But the smiling face of Liddie England gives us pause--we see a seemingly normal person engaged in despicable acts. It's a threat because she could be any of us. And so we pathologize her, we say she was one of a few "bad apples," and so on.

I think where I differ from Griffith here is that he seems inclined--at least, sometimes--to place the blame on image culture, on movies like Pulp Fiction, on short news cycles. But his description of the rape scene in Pulp Fiction suggests something quite different. He records that the audience was shocked, was uncomfortable, and so chose to forget. If this is the case, then his argument on page 77 that the audience is complicit in the scene for various stylistic reasons is nonsense--the audience whose reaction he just reported is certainly not complicit. Quite the opposite, in fact: it is disconcerted ("no more laughter in the theater, just stunned silence" 76).

Which is to say--perhaps the reason people look away from or choose not to talk about the Abu Ghraib photographs isn't that we've grown insensitive to violence. Perhaps the images cut too close to home--they are too real and so we are not able to push them off into some aesthetic realm. And that's not a fault of image culture so much as a generally human impulse--just as we have in the U.S. for two centuries pushed away or aestheticised the injustices at the core of our national identity.

EDIT: I just real-ized that I used "too real" in a very peculiar way, without defining it. Here "real" is something that punctures self-created illusions--the awareness that the world does not line up with the way we narrate it to ourselves, etc etc etc. The inbreaking of the real, then, would be very similar to what David Dark calls Apocalypse.

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

Which is to say--perhaps the reason people look away from or choose not to talk about the Abu Ghraib photographs isn't that we've grown insensitive to violence. Perhaps the images cut too close to home--they are too real and so we are not able to push them off into some aesthetic realm. And that's not a fault of image culture so much as a generally human impulse--just as we have in the U.S. for two centuries pushed away or aestheticised the injustices at the core of our national identity.

Yes.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

The more I think about it, Griffith's book is unique because he has taken something like the abuse at Abu Ghraib to ask us to consider what our present dialogue and actions reveal about ourselves, and how this revelation is also revealed by, influenced by, and sometimes even transformed by our own art and entertainment. The argument is that our art has distinct moral effects upon our character AND that something like what happened in Abu Ghraib - those photographs were carefully crafted and sickly demented works of art - teach us about our character. Again, the Abu Ghraib photographs are examples of works of art.

If you say American Exceptionalism rests in the uncommon ability to give lip-service to some ideals while doing precisely the opposite--then, yeah. Of all nations, America has most surely kissed the Blarney Stone. But my objection--and Griffith's objection, as far as I can tell--is that this is a mode of self-delusion, of image-maintenance. America needs to forget the Native Americans and slaves; why else should we be so eager to get into a "post-racial" society? It needs to forget in order to maintain the illusion that it has always been on the side of freedom against tyranny. It needs to forget those pictures from Abu Ghraib, and the reports from Gitmo, and any number of other allegations from black sites around the world so that it can continue to assure itself that it is on the side of the angels.

Again, Griffith hints at this but I think he pulls short. Lynching in the American South is only the tip of the iceberg; this tension goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson's condemnation of slavery--fine words, good ideals, but no action.

Wow, well put, and, which adds to the fun, is that this actually touches on the point with which I am most in disagreement with Griffith. The fundamental flaw in the idea that American commitment to our founding ideals is on the order of self-delusional lip-service is missing the point of the political tradition from which these ideals are derived. From Francis Hutcheson, Samuel Rutherford, Charles de Montesquieu & John Locke to Edmund Burke & Alexander Hamilton to Henry Cabot Lodge, John Dos Passos & Russell Kirk - there is a natural law political philosophy that also primarily acknowledges the inherent depravity of man. The idea is that there are political truths we can commit to, without perfectly following these truths.

As you read Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams or Madison, you see a complete acknowledgment of the American failure to live up to ideals like "all men are created equal." (The issue of slavery alone almost brought the Constitutional Convention to utter failure.) This acknowledgment is rooted in the understanding that initially committing to these ideals does not immediately result in following them. According to this philosophy, America must never forget about slavery, minority discrimination or other historically American crimes. Each of these issues are examples of wrong that it took great amounts of blood and sacrifice to remedy. Americans have been in the process of trying to more closely follow the political truths we have committed to, and it has taken over 200 years to reach the still imperfect/inconsistent state we are in today. We've rid ourselves of some historical hypocrisies only to find ourselves with others. There's no reason to think that this is ever not going to be a constant nonstop struggle. But it's a struggle worthwhile, and a fairly unique one historically.

It remains that the slavery that existed in American history was diametrically opposed to the political truths contained in the American founding documents, that how we treated Native Americans was a denial of "natural rights," and that the lynchings in the 1950s and the 1960s American South were against the law.

I find Griffith's insights into scapegoating to be very similar to the idea of projection: that we project our guilt and fear onto some Other in order to maintain our own self image. In this case, the singling out of the offenders at Abu Ghraib functions as a way for the U.S. to maintain its own illusion that it is fighting for freedom while at the same time symbolically punishing its own wrongdoings. If we can say that the torturers are a few "bad apples" we don't have to consider whether the tree itself might be a bad tree. [FWIW, Žižek made a similar observation in 2004]. (Of course, there's a more practical political point here: that Liddie England et al function as scapegoats for a certain group of men who managed to foist the blame for their decisions on to a few "bad apples" and, for the most part, wholly escape public censure/punishment themselves).

We have to be careful with the idea of complicity. We do not have to reject political "natural law" philosophy just because we all fail to follow it. C.S. Lewis argued that two of the most important truths we can discover is the existence of the moral law and the fact that we do not follow this law. There can be a difference between a scapegoat and a criminal. Yes, the "they were just a few bad apples" argument has been used to try and make us feel more comfortable with what happened. But it is not a reason to reject the ideals that made what happened at Abu Ghraib a crime in the first place. William F. Buckley carefully pointed out that what American soldiers did at Abu Ghraib "was against 1) regulations, 2) army convention, and 3) civilized tradition. What do the reformers want? Pre-induction courses for U.S. soldiers in which they are told not to strip and torture captives and photograph them naked? Should there be, also, a course on how they should not fire guns at their own officers? Is there nothing that can be taken for granted? ... Our singling out the men — and women — at Abu Ghraib as different, as criminals to be distinguished from non-criminals, is all the perspective we need in handling this case. No reforms are needed. What is needed is the reenergizing of codes of conduct. After the My Lai massacre in 1968, we needed not fresh rules, but reaffirmation of existing rules."

I'd disagree with Buckley that the fact that what happened was a crime is "all the perspective we need" in thinking about the case. There are other important questions to ask. But I think he's right with with the rest of his reasoning. The fact that what they did was a crime is a good thing - it should be against our laws to do what they did. This means that our laws do stand for something worthwhile.

Stepping back a bit, we can see the exact same thing going on throughout U.S. history, where al-Qaeda--and "terror" in general--becomes a screen on to which we project uncertainties about the U.S.'s place in the world, or where the Soviet Union becomes the freedom-hating enemy to freedom-loving [but McCarthyite] America. That's not to say that al-Qaeda or the Soviet Union weren't/aren't bad ideas, but that in popular discourse they are so totally Othered that they function less as real-world entities and more as symbolic representations of Dark America.

Stepping forward a bit, which is where I think Griffith really wants to take us, there is a sense in which the torturers function for individual Americans as projected Others. We--as individuals--regard ourselves as good people and like to think that in that situation we would never do the things we see in the photographs. But the smiling face of Liddie England gives us pause--we see a seemingly normal person engaged in despicable acts. It's a threat because she could be any of us. And so we pathologize her, we say she was one of a few "bad apples," and so on.

When the actions of international agents are based upon propositional claims to truth, it is possible to hold that one is true and the other false. I see no problem at all in acknowledging that the political ideas advocated for by the Soviet Union were both false and freedom hating. We do not have to "regard ourselves as good people" (who would never commit evils like Abu Ghraib or My Lai) in order for us to fight for what we believe is good. It is a fundamental political insight that we are, in fact, depraved and prone towards evil and stupidity (something that Hamilton and Adams wrote extensively upon). The difficulty is how to hold a criminal accountable without having to prove our own selves to be angels. We can distinguish Graner and England from the majority of American troops just as we can distinguish Islamic jihadists from the majority of Muslim people. And we can do so without giving up the idea that who fights for what does distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, even in a fallen world where every individual is sinful.

... perhaps the reason people look away from or choose not to talk about the Abu Ghraib photographs isn't that we've grown insensitive to violence. Perhaps the images cut too close to home--they are too real and so we are not able to push them off into some aesthetic realm. And that's not a fault of image culture so much as a generally human impulse--just as we have in the U.S. for two centuries pushed away or aestheticised the injustices at the core of our national identity.

I think it's possible to acknowledge both. I agree with you and with Griffith that, generally speaking, we have not responded to the images of Abu Ghraib as we ought to - and that could be because we do not want to acknowledge our own depravity. And, at the same time, I think we are complicit in allowing a culture of images and entertainment where, as Griffith notes on pg. 75, "In Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, we hear American soldiers in Iraq discussing the specific type of music they listen to while in combat. One soldier describes how he plugs a portable CD player into the communication system of the tank so he can hear the music in his headset. The song? ‘The roof. The roof. The roof is on fire. We don’t need no water. Let the motherfucker burn. Burn motherfucker burn.’” This is possibly the attitude towards death, destruction, war and violence of a majority of American troops - and it is an attitude that has been cultivated by our modern culture.

Edited by Persiflage

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

Wow, well put, and, which adds to the fun, is that this actually touches on the point with which I am most in disagreement with Griffith. The fundamental flaw in the idea that American commitment to our founding ideals is on the order of self-delusional lip-service is missing the point of the political tradition from which these ideals are derived. [...] The idea is that there are political truths we can commit to, without perfectly following these truths.

I think, actually, that the idea I'm suggesting--and that I take Griffith to be suggesting--is part and parcel of this very tradition. The idea is these ideals are good, and the failure to act on them is a failure of national character. You can't meet failure to live up to ideals of human dignity with a shrug and dismissive comment [not that you're dismissive, yourself] that humans are flawed. The only proper response to such a failure is outrage. All the fine ideals in the world are useless unless they're put into practice. Until you abolish slavery [to take the most obvious example] you simply do not have the right to claim to value human freedom.

It's not as if the concept is difficult. Look at the timeline for the abolition of slavery. 1822--Greece. 1827--Sweden and Britain form a treaty to abolish the trade; slavery abolished in Britain in 1834, 1847 in Sweden. Meanwhile, in America, we had the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, and didn't abolish slavery until 1865-1866--making us the last "civilized" nation to abolish slavery. The U.S. might have had the ideal that "all men are created equal," but we were far, far behind every other power in implementing that ideal, making any pretense at being exceptionally moral or idealistic seem a bit suspicious.

That's the problem with American Exceptionalism: it doesn't match up with history. It's delusional in the truest sense in that it re-writes memory in order to maintain a false self-image.

There can be a difference between a scapegoat and a criminal. Yes, the "they were just a few bad apples" argument has been used to try and make us feel more comfortable with what happened. But it is not a reason to reject the ideals that made what happened at Abu Ghraib a crime in the first place.

Ah, but as Griffith points out, what happened in Abu Ghraib was generally thought not to be a crime by the soldiers involved. In fact, it's likely that the Bush administration wouldn't have considered it a crime except for the fact that it was exposed. The exposure--not the deed itself--was the crime (I'm not speaking in the abstract legal sense here, but in the functional sense of what got punished--though see my comments on projection below). The individuals were undoubtedly acting wrongly, and their punishment was just; but it's telling that the outrage stopped with the individuals involved, and didn't extend up the chain of command to the people who first decreed that the prisoners were not covered by the Geneva Convention.

This is an important point: someone can function both as objectively wrong in their actions and as symptomatic of larger problems; similarly, it's perfectly possible to punish someone at once for their real crimes and as a scapegoat to conceal or eliminate the guilt of those in power, or the society at large, or of individuals. This, actually, is intimately related to the Soviet Union/al-Qaeda point below.

When the actions of international agents are based upon propositional claims to truth, it is possible to hold that one is true and the other false. I see no problem at all in acknowledging that the political ideas advocated for by the Soviet Union were both false and freedom hating.

Nor do I. But the "Soviet Union" that functioned as a bogeyman during the Cold War was not the Soviet Union that existed in reality. Nor is "terrorism" as it has functioned for much of the past decade the same thing as terrorism as it exists in reality. In each case, they serve as abstracted Evils against which America can set itself. There's no clearer picture of this than the claim that al-Qaeda "hates us for our freedoms." When Leftists suggested that America's actions in the Middle East might be a contributing factor, they were dismissed as "anti-American" because it seemed to be legitimating al-Qaeda--and al-Qaeda is evil and irrational. Thus al-Qaeda in particular--and "Terrorism" in general--was made to fill a position that was precisely not "based upon propositional claims to truth" since any claims they made were rejected as irrational out-of-hand. In some sense, any truth-claims they made were irrelevant because they weren't meant to function that way in the discourse.

Again, this isn't to say that al-Qaeda is innocent or that America is "just as guilty," but it is to say that terrorism's function in political discourse/popular imagination is largely enacted by voiding the words "al-Qaeda" or "terrorism" of real content and replacing that content with fears/anxieties/tensions that cannot be expressed otherwise without threatening the nation's self-image. And that's the same move--on a national and a personal level--that's made when we dismiss England et al as "bad apples" or psychopathic monsters: we divorce them from context (a context in which these "bad apples" are themselves dealing with a dehumanized Other) and fill them with our own anxieties/dark drives/what have you.

We do not have to "regard ourselves as good people" (who would never commit evils like Abu Ghraib or My Lai) in order for us to fight for what we believe is good. It is a fundamental political insight that we are, in fact, depraved and prone towards evil and stupidity (something that Hamilton and Adams wrote extensively upon).

No, but if we fail to live up to the ideals we espouse, we are condemned by our own words, and any pretense to Exceptionalism is shown to be doubtful at best. A nation that holds to good ideals and lives up to them is exceptional; a nation that gives lip-service to ideals and behaves in exactly the opposite manner while at the same time declaring itself exceptional is flawed at best. Certainly not exceptional (especially when, as pointed out above, other nations have lived up to those selfsame ideals--all while doubtlessly violating other ideals).

Now, here's the kicker: we know we fail to live up to those ideals. That's precisely why projection takes place, why we see our enemies both real and imagined as irredeemable monsters. It costs nothing to condemn the Soviet Union for hating freedom, and such condemnation allows us to ignore the ideological conformism on our doorstep. In the same way, it costs nothing to condemn al-Qaeda or the Taliban for blowing up buildings and oppressing women while doing nothing to implement, say, equal-pay laws at home or stop the habit of propping up dictators to serve our own ends. And so the Other becomes a receptacle for our guilt or our fears in addition to its already-existing crimes. This allows us to ignore our failure, to assert Exceptionalism, and so to continue without having to change anything.

EDIT: At the risk of lengthening an already over-long post, let me bring it all back home for a second and talk about myself. Speaking personally (and not to get any more political, but), I disagree with a lot of people, but I only truly loathe people in whom I can see a reflection of myself; thus, I disagree with Bush et al, but I do not regard him as irrational--simply wrong. On the other hand, certain libertarian views do inspire something like hate precisely because they align so closely to my own opinions. It's hard to argue that that hatred is not motivated in part by fear that my own right-eousness is itself illusory. As such, I do call such views "irrational," "inflexible," and so on in order to reassure myself of my own correctness. I recognize my reaction as itself irrational, but that only serves to heighten the fear--and so on and so on. The wrongness of these views is at this point immaterial; my response betrays a deeper issue that lies in my own challenged self-image. [i say this in the manner of confession, knowing full well that, because the response is irrational, rationally confessing it will likely do little to curb its effects]

And, at the same time, I think we are complicit in allowing a culture of images and entertainment where, as Griffith notes on pg. 75, "In Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, we hear American soldiers in Iraq discussing the specific type of music they listen to while in combat. One soldier describes how he plugs a portable CD player into the communication system of the tank so he can hear the music in his headset. The song? ‘The roof. The roof. The roof is on fire. We don’t need no water. Let the motherfucker burn. Burn motherfucker burn.’” This is possibly the attitude towards death, destruction, war and violence of a majority of American troops - and it is an attitude that has been cultivated by our modern culture.

I agree on that score; I don't think it's just Late Capitalism, though. Functionally, there's no difference between the song the soldier listens to and something like the anti-Muslim rhetoric in The Song of Roland or the medieval blood libel. All three serve to dehumanize the Other in order to make it easier to kill.

Which means that it's certainly a concern, but it's precisely not an attitude that our modern culture alone has cultivated; it's a standard move. It's almost certainly the same move that al-Qaeda makes toward the U.S.--and that without the "benefit" of Western culture. [scare quotes indicating not that WC isn't beneficial in some ways, but that it's certainly not beneficial in this way, even if we accept it as exceptionally violent, etc]

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

You can't meet failure to live up to ideals of human dignity with a shrug and dismissive comment [not that you're dismissive, yourself] that humans are flawed. The only proper response to such a failure is outrage. All the fine ideals in the world are useless unless they're put into practice. Until you abolish slavery [to take the most obvious example] you simply do not have the right to claim to value human freedom.

It's not as if the concept is difficult. Look at the timeline for the abolition of slavery. 1822--Greece. 1827--Sweden and Britain form a treaty to abolish the trade; slavery abolished in Britain in 1834, 1847 in Sweden. Meanwhile, in America, we had the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, and didn't abolish slavery until 1865-1866--making us the last "civilized" nation to abolish slavery. The U.S. might have had the ideal that "all men are created equal," but we were far, far behind every other power in implementing that ideal, making any pretense at being exceptionally moral or idealistic seem a bit suspicious.

That's the problem with American Exceptionalism: it doesn't match up with history. It's delusional in the truest sense in that it re-writes memory in order to maintain a false self-image.

I think the point is (and this obviously is the sort of thing that is going to shape how writers and artists think about this subject) it is that very struggle to more closely follow American ideals that defines American history. The proposition "Until you abolish slavery, you simply do not have the right to claim to value human freedom" is the sort of thing I'd imagine a hard-line abolitionist declaring to Abraham Lincoln. I think Lincoln would ask the abolitionist try attempt a historical perspective and ask him to remember that it's a matter of practical timing. Timelines like the one you're using can be used in more ways than one. There are historical, sociological and anthropological reasons why the organization of a "nation" and a "people" always begins with less law and order, more anarchy, more oppression, more tyranny, more slavery, less education, more violence, etc. Historically speaking, Greece, Sweden and Britain had been around for hundreds of years age-wise before any of them got around to abolishing slavery. It took the infant nation United States less than one hundred years of existence to abolish slavery and, ultimately, Americans choose to do so sooner than waiting for later (and the winning side alone gave up 360 thousand something lives in order to do so sooner). By that timeline, the U.S. abolished slavery earlier than any other nation in the history of the world.

Yes, there were hypocritical slave owners at the American founding who gave lip-service to "natural rights" ideals without following them. And yes, there were also founders who admitted slavery was wrong and occasionally made idealistic and feeble attempts to abolish it (like Jefferson). But also, there were founders (like Hamilton) who tactically decided that the only way to create a civilization that would ultimately abolish slavery was to tie the slavery hungry states to a federal government powerful enough to end slavery after it was created (by not ending slavery in order to be created in the first place). I don't understand what's delusional or false self-image creating about appreciating the Americans in history who ultimately brought us closer to the principles written down at the country's founding (again, like one president and 360 thousand dead Union soldiers).

Ah, but as Griffith points out, what happened in Abu Ghraib was generally thought not to be a crime by the soldiers involved. In fact, it's likely that the Bush administration wouldn't have considered it a crime except for the fact that it was exposed. The exposure--not the deed itself--was the crime (I'm not speaking in the abstract legal sense here, but in the functional sense of what got punished--though see my comments on projection below). The individuals were undoubtedly acting wrongly, and their punishment was just; but it's telling that the outrage stopped with the individuals involved, and didn't extend up the chain of command to the people who first decreed that the prisoners were not covered by the Geneva Convention.

This is an important point: someone can function both as objectively wrong in their actions and as symptomatic of larger problems; similarly, it's perfectly possible to punish someone at once for their real crimes and as a scapegoat to conceal or eliminate the guilt of those in power, or the society at large, or of individuals.

The soldiers involved were depraved, conscience-seared, desensitized bullies, but they still knew what they were doing was a crime. Griffin is asking us to look at the culture that they came from and then asking us to think about whether that should scare us. You're right that the whole thing was symptomatic of the larger problems of our society. As far as those in power, punishment takes different forms for perpetrators and for those who are higher and higher up the chain of authority. Because of the way our country works, Americans disposed to those in power at the very highest levels of authority in the 2008 elections.

This, actually, is intimately related to the Soviet Union/al-Qaeda point below ... But the "Soviet Union" that functioned as a bogeyman during the Cold War was not the Soviet Union that existed in reality. Nor is "terrorism" as it has functioned for much of the past decade the same thing as terrorism as it exists in reality. In each case, they serve as abstracted Evils against which America can set itself.

I don't see why we needed a "Soviet Union" as bogeyman when we could object to the facts concerning the Soviet Union of actual reality just fine. Soviet "official records" actually document the execution of 800 thousand people for political reasons alone just during the nation's early years under Joseph Stalin. Historians are beginning to conclude that approximately 1.7 million people were murdered in Soviet run Gulags during the imposition of the Iron Curtain. The total numbers of people slaughtered over the years of changing Communist dictators, subsequent revolutions, stamped out rebellions, invasions, etc. numbers conservatively in the tens of millions. And those are just the deaths. What would Americans need a bogeyman for during the Cold War?

This is why films like The Lives of Others or The Way Back are so powerful. But we live in a culture where the majority of American film viewers have not seen and will not see either of those two films.

There's no clearer picture of this than the claim that al-Qaeda "hates us for our freedoms." When Leftists suggested that America's actions in the Middle East might be a contributing factor, they were dismissed as "anti-American" because it seemed to be legitimating al-Qaeda--and al-Qaeda is evil and irrational. Thus al-Qaeda in particular--and "Terrorism" in general--was made to fill a position that was precisely not "based upon propositional claims to truth" since any claims they made were rejected as irrational out-of-hand. In some sense, any truth-claims they made were irrelevant because they weren't meant to function that way in the discourse.

Again, this isn't to say that al-Qaeda is innocent or that America is "just as guilty," but it is to say that terrorism's function in political discourse/popular imagination is largely enacted by voiding the words "al-Qaeda" or "terrorism" of real content and replacing that content with fears/anxieties/tensions that cannot be expressed otherwise without threatening the nation's self-image. And that's the same move--on a national and a personal level--that's made when we dismiss England et al as "bad apples" or psychopathic monsters: we divorce them from context (a context in which these "bad apples" are themselves dealing with a dehumanized Other) and fill them with our own anxieties/dark drives/what have you.

Bad rhetoric and narrow-minded reductionist arguments against radical Islamic jihadists does not, unfortunately, prevent them from being radical Islamic jihadists. We cannot shrink from calling evil what it is. One of my difficulties with Griffith is, for all his eloquence against the evils of war in the book, he pretty much ignores the theological and philosophical age-old discussion about what it means to wage a just war. St. Thomas Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria, Hugo Grotius, Edmund Burke, Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz ... the list goes on of reasonable and intelligent thinkers who, essentially, believed that the distinction in war between the good guys and the bad guys is a distinction worth making. Sure, some al-Qaeda actions or attacks may be in response to the use of American force around the world. This much is obvious to a 10-year-old reading a Batman comic about the Joker. If our modern political rhetoric voids the term "terrorism" of any meaningful content, but that's a problem with our modern use of political rhetoric, not necessarily with our stand against terrorism.

... if we fail to live up to the ideals we espouse, we are condemned by our own words, and any pretense to Exceptionalism is shown to be doubtful at best. A nation that holds to good ideals and lives up to them is exceptional; a nation that gives lip-service to ideals and behaves in exactly the opposite manner while at the same time declaring itself exceptional is flawed at best. Certainly not exceptional (especially when, as pointed out above, other nations have lived up to those selfsame ideals--all while doubtlessly violating other ideals).

Now, here's the kicker: we know we fail to live up to those ideals. That's precisely why projection takes place, why we see our enemies both real and imagined as irredeemable monsters. It costs nothing to condemn the Soviet Union for hating freedom, and such condemnation allows us to ignore the ideological conformism on our doorstep. In the same way, it costs nothing to condemn al-Qaeda or the Taliban for blowing up buildings and oppressing women while doing nothing to implement, say, equal-pay laws at home or stop the habit of propping up dictators to serve our own ends. And so the Other becomes a receptacle for our guilt or our fears in addition to its already-existing crimes. This allows us to ignore our failure, to assert Exceptionalism, and so to continue without having to change anything.

I think you and Griffith both haven't thought about, or at least really extensively explored, the entire purpose of advancing the idea of American exceptionalism in the first place. Those of us who do not have a problem with the idea of "American exceptionalism" are not trying to be arrogant or feel good about ourselves by explaining how much better we are than everyone else. We don't need to pretend that some Americans have not done bad, horrible or evil things in the past. We do not claim perfection. This is not about self-esteem or self-image. The purpose of the very idea of "American exceptionalism" is to try and protect some things that we would like to keep. When a conservative points out that the average American currently has more freedom than he or she would have if she lived almost anywhere else in the world, the purpose is not to gloat, but to plead that this is how we'd like to stay. There were reasons, Alexis de Tocqueville said, that our country's founding worked out differently (and less violently) than those of France or Britain. "American exceptionalism" asserts that those reasons are qualities we want to keep. American society is uniquely fluid in the sense that, while we have poor, a large amount of our poor don't stay poor but end up pulling themselves up an economic level or two during their lifetimes. Government spending by percentage of GDP has also made us unique to almost all European, Asian and South American countries. The idea is that this uniqueness is worth preserving.

And yes, the same reasoning applies to war. We do not invade other countries to add more states to the Union. (And if we have once or twice in the past, then we don't believe in doing so anymore.) The idea is that we are only interested in waging just wars (that Aquinas and Grotius would approve of). Our imperialism, if that's what you want to call it, is of a much different sort than that of the Soviet Union, or the British Empire, or of Napoleon, Rome, Alexander, or Persia. And we'd like it to stay different. War crimes like Abu Ghraib or worse result in images of evil. And these images are of evils that are not different from the sort of evils committed by those working for the likes of Joseph Stalin. Griffith argues they are important for this reason, and I think he's right because they should serve as reminders that we are capable of going down the same wrong road that others have gone before.

Speaking personally (and not to get any more political, but), I disagree with a lot of people, but I only truly loathe people in whom I can see a reflection of myself; thus, I disagree with Bush et al, but I do not regard him as irrational--simply wrong. On the other hand, certain libertarian views do inspire something like hate precisely because they align so closely to my own opinions. It's hard to argue that that hatred is not motivated in part by fear that my own right-eousness is itself illusory. As such, I do call such views "irrational," "inflexible," and so on in order to reassure myself of my own correctness. I recognize my reaction as itself irrational, but that only serves to heighten the fear--and so on and so on. The wrongness of these views is at this point immaterial; my response betrays a deeper issue that lies in my own challenged self-image. [i say this in the manner of confession, knowing full well that, because the response is irrational, rationally confessing it will likely do little to curb its effects]

Thanks for making the personal analogy. I share the same sort of instinct, but I'm not entirely sure it's irrational. Couldn't you see how false claims to truth can be all the more dangerous the closer they are to the truth. If you are convinced that something is true, then those libertarian viewpoints you see as wrong but which align so closely to your own opinion, could turn out to be the most damaging. They could most easily be mistaken by others or yourself to be the truth. By being fundamentally wrong, they could appear to discredit the other truths to which they so closely align. They could cause others to reject the truths along with the apparently similar falsehoods. I don't mean to belittle your use of the word "hatred" but I'd suggest it's understandable, and could perhaps go away with further thought (and perhaps a little purging).

Speaking of close alignments, we've been discussing this abstractly for a while now, but if you look back I think you'll find that we are still following Griffith's main ideas about how this discussion interacts with art and images. Rumsfeld would have preferred that the Abu Ghraib images never got out (not because he didn't think they were wrong, but because he thought they were bad PR). Griffith argues that there was value in their getting out because of what our responses to them revealed and because of what they themselves reveal about what we either are or what we could become. To him, it's like these images could play the same role as a Flannery O'Connor character.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

Little bit rushed right now, so forgive me if I brush over broad points too quickly:

I think the point is (and this obviously is the sort of thing that is going to shape how writers and artists think about this subject) it is that very struggle to more closely follow American ideals that defines American history. The proposition "Until you abolish slavery, you simply do not have the right to claim to value human freedom" is the sort of thing I'd imagine a hard-line abolitionist declaring to Abraham Lincoln. I think Lincoln would ask the abolitionist try attempt a historical perspective and ask him to remember that it's a matter of practical timing.

"Practical timing" isn't much comfort to slaves.

That may seem flippant, but it really isn't. I really think this section of our discussion is reflective of a standard historical tension. During the Civil Rights movement, apparently a lot of desegregation-favoring Liberals urged the African American community to wait, to be patient--that eventually desegregation would become inevitable. But patience is the luxury of the unoppressed; when you are a slave (or a woman or a Native American, depending on the historical placement) the situation is an existential one. You can't afford to wait if you and your family are under the lash every day.

Like I say, this tension is, as far as I can tell, a standard historical one--and I doubt it will every be resolved. For that matter, I doubt it should ever be resolved; there's something fruitful about the back-and-forth between the two views (OTOH, I'm a white, functionally middle-class male, so it's not like I'm in any sort of existential hurt here).

Timelines like the one you're using can be used in more ways than one. There are historical, sociological and anthropological reasons why the organization of a "nation" and a "people" always begins with less law and order, more anarchy, more oppression, more tyranny, more slavery, less education, more violence, etc. Historically speaking, Greece, Sweden and Britain had been around for hundreds of years age-wise before any of them got around to abolishing slavery.

See, I'm doubtful of this line of thinking--primarily because the fact that America was founded during the Enlightenment. Of course it took less comparative time to abolish slavery--the patterns of thinking that lead to the abolition of slavery ("moral feeling" theory, etc etc etc) were fairly young, themselves.

Now, insofar as America was an Enlightenment project, it would make sense to argue that America should have abolished slavery earlier than other Western powers, precisely because it was set up by a bunch of freedom-loving Enlightenment guys. Except, of course, that "liberty" seems most often to mean "freedom for me, patience for thee."

I don't understand what's delusional or false self-image creating about appreciating the Americans in history who ultimately brought us closer to the principles written down at the country's founding (again, like one president and 360 thousand dead Union soldiers).

Oh, nothing delusional about that. What is delusional is extrapolating the idea out to say that America is somehow uniquely moral or exceptional in a way that sets it outside or above other nations. America's history is often little more than a long failure to live up to its espoused ideals. Heck, we still fail to live up to our espoused ideals, and that's a problem. But here's the thing--saying that we fail to live up to those ideals is precisely to argue that those ideals matter.

That's what I mean when I say that we seem to be arguing along the same lines. There's no question that America's "founding ideals" tend toward greater freedom for everybody (well, America doesn't have the market cornered on love of freedom, but since we're talking specifically about the U.S. here....) But those ideals haven't been standard operating procedure, and talk about exceptionalism is problematic for that very reason. When I think of American Exceptionalism, I think of Manifest Destiny; I think of slaves and women and the long history of failure. Which is to say--I value the experiences of the outcast over the triumphalist experiences of the powerful. There is no way that you can look at American history from that perspective and see it as anything else but a sadly unexceptional. But it's precisely because I respect those founding values that I'm so hard on the nation.

Put another way, when an individual claims to believe certain truths and acts in exactly the opposite manner, we call them a hypocrite. We don't congratulate them on having the right ideals and suggest that there's something exceptional or remarkable about them being less of a hypocrite today than they were tomorrow.

Bad rhetoric and narrow-minded reductionist arguments against radical Islamic jihadists does not, unfortunately, prevent them from being radical Islamic jihadists.

Actually, I said that.

One of my difficulties with Griffith is, for all his eloquence against the evils of war in the book, he pretty much ignores the theological and philosophical age-old discussion about what it means to wage a just war. St. Thomas Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria, Hugo Grotius, Edmund Burke, Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz ... the list goes on of reasonable and intelligent thinkers who, essentially, believed that the distinction in war between the good guys and the bad guys is a distinction worth making. Sure, some al-Qaeda actions or attacks may be in response to the use of American force around the world. This much is obvious to a 10-year-old reading a Batman comic about the Joker. If our modern political rhetoric voids the term "terrorism" of any meaningful content, but that's a problem with our modern use of political rhetoric, not necessarily with our stand against terrorism.

Oh, "just war theory" is a whole 'nother kettle of fish that I'm not sure I want to get into (suffice it to say that I don't think pre-emptive wars on "Terror" qualify). But let me back up and re-state that the issue of scapegoating/projection doesn't void the evil of al-Qaeda. What it does is force us to turn our lens back onto ourselves. There's a danger in being to certain that you're on the side of Righteousness and Truth, no matter who your enemy is (the evils of Hitler, if I can Godwin for a moment, do not excuse the internment of Japanese Americans).

I think you and Griffith both haven't thought about, or at least really extensively explored, the entire purpose of advancing the idea of American exceptionalism in the first place. Those of us who do not have a problem with the idea of "American exceptionalism" are not trying to be arrogant or feel good about ourselves by explaining how much better we are than everyone else.

No, but that's what Manifest Destiny (which is closely tied in to American Exceptionalism) is. There's a danger in patting oneself too hard on the back--it can throw your shoulder out of joint, for one thing. I agree that there are lots of things to like about America, but being too jealous of our "exceptionalism" can lead too easily--in the last decade or so has led too easily--to a refusal to learn from other [successful] nations and an insistence that our way must be the best way.

War crimes like Abu Ghraib or worse result in images of evil. And these images are of evils that are not different from the sort of evils committed by those working for the likes of Joseph Stalin. Griffith argues they are important for this reason, and I think he's right because they should serve as reminders that we are capable of going down the same wrong road that others have gone before.

Absolutely. But we should keep in mind that it's the same road we've gone down before--slavery, again, and the treatment of Native Americans, etc etc etc. It's less a sign of things to come and more a sign of sickness already here (theologically, we can call this sin).

Thanks for making the personal analogy. I share the same sort of instinct, but I'm not entirely sure it's irrational. Couldn't you see how false claims to truth can be all the more dangerous the closer they are to the truth. If you are convinced that something is true, then those libertarian viewpoints you see as wrong but which align so closely to your own opinion, could turn out to be the most damaging. They could most easily be mistaken by others or yourself to be the truth. By being fundamentally wrong, they could appear to discredit the other truths to which they so closely align. They could cause others to reject the truths along with the apparently similar falsehoods. I don't mean to belittle your use of the word "hatred" but I'd suggest it's understandable, and could perhaps go away with further thought (and perhaps a little purging).

Oh, that's what I tell myself. ;)

Seriously, though, I don't entirely disagree here. But all those occur after the initial shock of discomfort/threat/fear. They may well be true, just as criticisms of al-Qaeda by the U.S. are true, but that doesn't change the origin of the initial surge.

Speaking of close alignments, we've been discussing this abstractly for a while now, but if you look back I think you'll find that we are still following Griffith's main ideas about how this discussion interacts with art and images. Rumsfeld would have preferred that the Abu Ghraib images never got out (not because he didn't think they were wrong, but because he thought they were bad PR). Griffith argues that there was value in their getting out because of what our responses to them revealed and because of what they themselves reveal about what we either are or what we could become. To him, it's like these images could play the same role as a Flannery O'Connor character.

Exactly. I think other things serve similar uses--slave narratives, or photographs of lynchings, or even trash fiction from the 19th century. Not to mention David Dark again, but I really think Griffith is awfully close here to the sort of thing discussed in Everyday Apocalypse--albeit from a more political perspective.

Incidentally, any thoughts on why Griffith, after going on and on about the importance of the Abu Ghraib photos, winds up only including heavily aestheticized versions in the book? Perhaps it's a copyright thing (though who would own the copyright on those??) but it seems like he's pulling his punch a little here.

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

Persiflage wrote:

: Historically speaking, Greece, Sweden and Britain had been around for hundreds of years age-wise before any of them got around to abolishing slavery. It took the infant nation United States less than one hundred years of existence to abolish slavery . . . By that timeline, the U.S. abolished slavery earlier than any other nation in the history of the world.

This is a rather bizarre argument.

The United States was a collection of British colonies that rebelled against Britain and, in doing so, ended up PRESERVING slavery within their borders for a few decades after the rest of the British Empire had abolished it.

That might not have been the INTENTION behind their rebellion, but it was certainly a CONSEQUENCE of their rebellion -- and the fact that, a few generations later, they were prepared to slaughter hundreds of thousands of their own citizens in order to catch up to the relatively peaceful abolitionism of the rest of the world doesn't necessarily speak all that well for them, either.

But that's a tangent from my main point here, which is that calling the United States an "infant nation" is somewhat misleading within this context.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

Edited to add: Ok, this discussion is starting to look quite intensive. But, NBooth is taking me through some lines of thought I haven't considered before. I'm enjoying pursuing them. And while the two of us may pursue them further elsewhere, I still don't mind cautiously pursuing a few of Griffith's ideas on this thread since we'd both be entirely happy to welcome the thoughts of anyone else lucky enough to read Griffith's book.

I really think this section of our discussion is reflective of a standard historical tension. During the Civil Rights movement, apparently a lot of desegregation-favoring Liberals urged the African American community to wait, to be patient--that eventually desegregation would become inevitable. But patience is the luxury of the unoppressed; when you are a slave (or a woman or a Native American, depending on the historical placement) the situation is an existential one. You can't afford to wait if you and your family are under the lash every day ... What is delusional is extrapolating the idea out to say that America is somehow uniquely moral or exceptional in a way that sets it outside or above other nations. America's history is often little more than a long failure to live up to its espoused ideals. Heck, we still fail to live up to our espoused ideals, and that's a problem. But here's the thing--saying that we fail to live up to those ideals is precisely to argue that those ideals matter.

... and talk about exceptionalism is problematic for that very reason. When I think of American Exceptionalism, I think of Manifest Destiny; I think of slaves and women and the long history of failure. Which is to say--I value the experiences of the outcast over the triumphalist experiences of the powerful. There is no way that you can look at American history from that perspective and see it as anything else but a sadly unexceptional. But it's precisely because I respect those founding values that I'm so hard on the nation. Put another way, when an individual claims to believe certain truths and acts in exactly the opposite manner, we call them a hypocrite. We don't congratulate them on having the right ideals and suggest that there's something exceptional or remarkable about them being less of a hypocrite today than they were tomorrow.

... Oh, "just war theory" is a whole 'nother kettle of fish that I'm not sure I want to get into (suffice it to say that I don't think pre-emptive wars on "Terror" qualify). But let me back up and re-state that the issue of scapegoating/projection doesn't void the evil of al-Qaeda. What it does is force us to turn our lens back onto ourselves. There's a danger in being to certain that you're on the side of Righteousness and Truth, no matter who your enemy is (the evils of Hitler, if I can Godwin for a moment, do not excuse the internment of Japanese Americans) ... There's a danger in patting oneself too hard on the back--it can throw your shoulder out of joint, for one thing. I agree that there are lots of things to like about America, but being too jealous of our "exceptionalism" can lead too easily--in the last decade or so has led too easily--to a refusal to learn from other [successful] nations and an insistence that our way must be the best way.

As I understand him, Griffith is arguing for the importance of art and images partly because, historically, much of American art portrays and engages with historical injustice and oppression. Mistreatment of the Native-Americans, slavery, human rights violations in the post-Civil War south, civil rights oppression of women - all of these things have given rise to art, in images as well as in music, film, and literature. But, at the same time, he's not arguing for sociological separated multicultural "studies" that reinforce stereotypes and tend to separate minorities from everyone else. Instead, he's teaching his students to appreciate how works of art concerning war and oppression can teach all of us about ourselves and about our identity, morally and spiritually. It's not just the art of an oppressed minority that we should consider. It's also how the majority responds to the art, expression and voice of the minority that we should consider. How Americans respond to a short story like Dry September by William Faulkner is of significant spiritual importance - to our moral health, both individually and as a nation. Griffith's worry is that the glut of desensitizing violent images in our culture is taking away the ability of his students to understand with any depth the insights that stories like Faulkner's have to offer us.

If American history is the story of a constant struggle to follow certain principles, then it is vitally important to remember the hypocrites of American history. These historical examples will serve to point out to us our own indulgence in modern hypocrisies. Slavery was the morally defining issue lurking behind almost every political battle in the first half of American history. It was an American self-contradiction. And it took Americans like Alexander Hamilton, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln to figure out how to end it (and ending it was only the beginning of new battles). The historical tensions you are alluding to include the historical fact that, if the men who wanted to ban slavery refused to compromise at the Constitutional Convention, then the Constitution would never have been finished let alone ratified - and the United States probably would never have existed. So yes, that's right, the United States' very existence was partly based upon a compromise by anti-slavery political thinkers who, like James Wilson, decided to insert a few ticking clocks into the Constitution that were intended to end slavery at a later date. This historical tension is again demonstrated by men like FDR and Earl Warren (a civil rights hero) who decided for Japanese internment camps against the arguments of J. Edgar Hoover and Robert Taft.

I think another part of this historical tension is that the story of Manifest Destiny does not just include Polk's use of overblown rhetoric. It also includes the opposition to Manifest Destiny as expressed by an old Daniel Webster and a young Abraham Lincoln. It's easy to say that Americans did this or that injustice or accepted this or that hypocrisy. But the heroes in our history are exactly the men and women who fought to stop these injustices and eliminate the hypocrisy. I'd continue to defend the idea of American Exceptionalism, not because it's reason to believe we're morally superior to other human beings in the world, but because the very idea of founding a government upon a precisely written out "natural law" and "natural rights" political philosophy is, in fact, rare. It's an experiment that I believe in and don't want to lose. It's an experiment that we want more nations to attempt. And it's a foundation that many of us feel that the modern age is more willing to throw under the bus and move on to a different political philosophy altogether. Our modern culture is growing, as de Tocqueville predicted it would, at increasing odds against the very political philosophy that made our existence possible in the first place.

One of the first paragraphs I wrote for my book review, which I intend to finally finish this weekend, is as follows:

American culture is a good reason for the rest of the world to reject anything we try to do for them. We are supposed to hold to certain inalienable truths about mankind as self-evident, but because of the way we live and act, our pretending to act for these goals smacks of outright arrogance and hypocrisy. Why should any God-fearing Muslim, in Afghanistan, Iraq, or, for that matter, even Iran, want anything to do with what now remains of Western culture? How easy do we make it for them to think of us as corrupt, depraved, hard-hearted and evil? Quite easy.

Persiflage wrote:

: Historically speaking, Greece, Sweden and Britain had been around for hundreds of years age-wise before any of them got around to abolishing slavery. It took the infant nation United States less than one hundred years of existence to abolish slavery . . . By that timeline, the U.S. abolished slavery earlier than any other nation in the history of the world.

This is a rather bizarre argument.

The United States was a collection of British colonies that rebelled against Britain and, in doing so, ended up PRESERVING slavery within their borders for a few decades after the rest of the British Empire had abolished it.

That might not have been the INTENTION behind their rebellion, but it was certainly a CONSEQUENCE of their rebellion -- and the fact that, a few generations later, they were prepared to slaughter hundreds of thousands of their own citizens in order to catch up to the relatively peaceful abolitionism of the rest of the world doesn't necessarily speak all that well for them, either.

But that's a tangent from my main point here, which is that calling the United States an "infant nation" is somewhat misleading within this context.

It's also quite possible that by separating themselves from Britain, they made it easier for Britain to abolish it. Slavery in Britain was not as strictly divided by race as in the United States (many British slaves were Irish as well as African.) The economic vitality of half of the United States was based on a Southern economy that relied upon slavery to make profits. Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin transformed the American economy in ways that it didn't change Britain's. This probably would have been quite different if Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia were all part of the British Empire in 1793 and the profits of the cotton boom were enriching Great Britain (William Wilberforce would have had a much steeper battle on his hands). So it's by no means a foregone conclusion that Britain would have ended slavery when they did if the American colonies had not rebelled, and thus not necessarily true that the American revolution preserved slavery.

Massachussets abolished slavery in 1781. The Constitutional Convention was in 1787. The cotton gin changed everything around 1783. By 1804, all the Northern states had abolished slavery and American politics became obsessed for the next five decades in a struggle between the "free" and the "slave" states (a balance the Southern states fought tooth and nail to keep because they knew slavery would be abolished if they became a significant minority in Congress). Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was in 1863 (issued immediately after the Battle of Antietam).

The idea that the United States was an "infant nation" is based on the idea that the Constitution that they crafted was fundamentally different than any other type of self-government attempted in countries like Greece, Rome or Great Britain (let alone others). It's every sentence and clause was carefully selected to create a balance based on a particular "natural rights" philosophy. This was a political philosophy that was not shared by many Americans (as evidenced by the anti-federalists). And early American history is a story of conflict between these political philosophies (one of which, with its ideas of government still resting in the origins of the "divine right of kings" allowed for slavery). Russell Kirk noted that the anti-federalist political philosophy was essentially attempted in France. John C. Calhoun and southern secessionists held to this same political philosophy. Lincoln, and his intellectual ancestors, did not. Even today, there are Republicans, conservatives and libertarians who still will not grant that the Civil War was fought over slavery (and the political philosophy that supported its existence). The point here is that the Constitution was written through the triumph of one political philosophy over that of another. And the idea of the "infancy" and "exceptionalism" of the United States, is in its unique and historically recent founding upon this particular philosophy.

The more I think through this, the more Griffith is reminding me of Alexis de Tocqueville's discussion of arts and culture in Democracy in America. I think Griffith is asking us, even if he himself hasn't worked his way through all the connections, whether our entertainment culture (and its spiritual and moral affects in shaping us and how we think) is leading us against the very ideals and principles upon which the American government was based. Culture fosters philosophy. And there is a good question as to whether our culture is currently undermining the very political philosophy which we are purporting to the rest of the world to be the right one.

Edited by Persiflage

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

Edited to add: Ok, this discussion is starting to look quite intensive. But, NBooth is taking me through some lines of thought I haven't considered before. I'm enjoying pursuing them. And while the two of us may pursue them further elsewhere, I still don't mind cautiously pursuing a few of Griffith's ideas on this thread since we'd both be entirely happy to welcome the thoughts of anyone else lucky enough to read Griffith's book.

Agreed (with the necessary reversal of identities). I'm finding this discussion very rewarding, but would hate if anyone felt locked out.

In fact, I want to bracket the broader political/quasi-psychological discussion for a moment and look at some stuff that's more directly related to the book (with citations!):

As I understand him, Griffith is arguing for the importance of art and images partly because, historically, much of American art portrays and engages with historical injustice and oppression. Mistreatment of the Native-Americans, slavery, human rights violations in the post-Civil War south, civil rights oppression of women - all of these things have given rise to art, in images as well as in music, film, and literature. But, at the same time, he's not arguing for sociological separated multicultural "studies" that reinforce stereotypes and tend to separate minorities from everyone else. Instead, he's teaching his students to appreciate how works of art concerning war and oppression can teach all of us about ourselves and about our identity, morally and spiritually. It's not just the art of an oppressed minority that we should consider. It's also how the majority responds to the art, expression and voice of the minority that we should consider. How Americans respond to a short story like Dry September by William Faulkner is of significant spiritual importance - to our moral health, both individually and as a nation. Griffith's worry is that the glut of desensitizing violent images in our culture is taking away the ability of his students to understand with any depth the insights that stories like Faulkner's have to offer us.

I happen to believe in the value of having sociological separated multicultural studies programs precisely because a lot of these literatures don't get play in "regular" lit studies. But let's bracket that as well. I like what you're saying, but I have a couple of caveats:

[1] I would be very suspicious of diagnosing anyone's moral health based on their ability to appreciate Faulkner. I mean, I appreciate him, but it's not difficult to see reasons why the general public might not that have nothing to do with desensitizing images. Besides, Faulkner was largely a failure until well after his "major" period had passed (he was, in fact, out of print for much a good while after The Sound and the Fury was published. It took The Portable Faulkner, IIRC, to put him back on top--and by then he was, as I understand it, past his best work).

[2] Be that as it may, I don't recall Griffith really plugging in to image at all in that section--he focuses on the need for a "hero" who "wins" and a "villain" who loses (a "scapegoat" [147]). He goes on to talk--not about images--but about euphemisms. When he finally gets around to the photos, he is interested in how they are constructed linguistically: "the moral reality of the actions photographed and video-taped at Abu Ghraib are shaped in large part by the language learned [i.e. "rough them up"] to describe the actions that went on there" (153). He goes on to talk about legality vs. morality (158). The issue doesn't seem to be that people weren't shocked by the images--it's that they passed by them, refused to look, papered over them with legalities and self-assuring words.

[3] Which is to say, the more I think about this book, the less I'm convinced that it actually is about image-culture or desensitization in any meaningful way. I think--and you touch on this in the quote above, albeit in a different sense--it's about how we respond to moments--in film or photographs or prose--that threaten (here it comes again) our self-image. What Faulkner and O'Connor and Blue Velvet and Abu Ghraib all have in common is that we cannot look on them indifferently. We must either look and confront ourselves, or walk by--ignore--dismiss--what have you.

The more I think through this, the more Griffith is reminding me of Alexis de Tocqueville's discussion of arts and culture in Democracy in America. I think Griffith is asking us, even if he himself hasn't worked his way through all the connections, whether our entertainment culture (and its spiritual and moral affects in shaping us and how we think) is leading us against the very ideals and principles upon which the American government was based. Culture fosters philosophy. And there is a good question as to whether our culture is currently undermining the very political philosophy which we are purporting to the rest of the world to be the right one.

Ok, there's a lot to unpack here. First--de Tocqueville ain't my bag, so I did a little searching around. He didn't think democracies could produce good art, no? [He also said Americans hate abstraction, which is funny in the context of this discussion].

Second, I think you might be making a massive shift here in terms of Griffith's thesis. Part of the problem is that I'm not sure he has a thesis. My growing complaint about the book is that he doesn't nail anything down. Heck, even having a "References" section would have been nice. But, if there is a thesis to this text, I'm pretty sure it's not about entertainment culture undermining American values. The book ends with Griffith standing at the statue of Commodore Perry and seeing that Perry's quote "We have me the enemy and he is ours" has been Pogo-ized to read "he is us."

Now, there's a couple of things going on here. The statue is an afterthought--it's positioned to give us the "key" to the book (that is, it is the accidental point at which we assume "meaning" will break through)--and, what's more, it's purposefully put out of chronological order. And, what's more, it's set up so that historical time is also suspended--symbolically, at least. So we have Perry and all the vets smoking around him, the past and present. Battle of Lake Erie (that is, the War of 1812--effectively putting him outside the issues of slavery and the War on Terror, though having the vets around brings him into communion with twentieth/twenty-first century warfare). And we have the quote, which is an example of someone bringing Pogo back to his roots:

Pogo_-_Earth_Day_1971_poster.jpg

Ok, then. What do we have? A temporally-suspended quotation from a funny paper brought back to its origin. We have a number of years stacked on top of each other [1812/1953/1970] spanning a good slice of the history of the United States--and coming further up to our time, with the un-dated graffiti. From this, it seems evident that Griffith's point isn't intended to be just about modern culture. If it were, Griffith could have ended things at the museum, with the kids going off for their coffee, bored with the display. But no, he chooses to take us back to 1812 (the symbolism here is pretty heavy-handed, so forgive me if I keep repeating it) in order to confront us with an overwhelming question: Who is our enemy? Who has always been our enemy? And his answer--Us.

Now, I don't want to go too far here because I think Griffith pulls up short. He doesn't really push the idea as far as it could go--that there are always two Americas chasing each other through time, that the contradiction at the heart of American life runs clear back to the beginning of the nation (I say nothing of other nations here, not because they don't have such contradictions, but because Griffith doesn't address them).

In short, what I think Griffith is onto is precisely the opposite of what you're suggesting: Griffith is not suggesting [beyond a few lines here and there] that our current culture is undermining our values; he's suggesting that we--as humans, not as an abstracted "culture" (which has never existed in a strong sense anyway, and increasingly doesn't exist at all)--deny our values, ignore them, massage them. That politically this takes the form of "bad apples" rhetoric when confronted with Abu Ghraib; that individually this takes the form of exulting in the violence of Pulp Fiction or Palanuik without giving any thought to what's going on--or even, in the case of the rape scene, by deliberately forgetting it. This isn't an error brought on by image-culture; it's as old as the nation, as old as the human. We can call it sin if you want to use theological terms.

Now, you might say that "we're all sinners" is a trite conclusion. I agree. Griffith simply doesn't explore the idea in the amount of depth that I would like. He needs more psychology. He needs more philosophy. We've established that he needs more history. He could have used some stuff from Camera Lucida to beef up his point (actually, this book reminded me of the Barthes work on a couple of occasions--both are meditations on photography, asking what personally draws the author to the photograph, etc etc etc). But, short as the book is, it does serve as a--what? Punctum isn't the word I want, but it's close enough--it serves as a small point where much larger concerns can force their way in. Some of them are political. Some may be sociological. But I'm thinking that reading the book as either without reading it as somehow existential [not in the school-of-philosophy sense, but in the simple sense of "having to do with problems of human existence"] makes it a far simpler work than it really is.

EDIT: Not to overburden an already-too-long post, but this discussion has sent me back--as it inevitably would--to David Dark's The Gospel According to America. (David Dark Thread Linkage). Though it's by far the least of Dark's books, I think it gets at a lot of what we've been discussing here and what Griffith hints at in his own work. Consider, for instance, the conclusion to chapter 1:

With all these hazards in mind, we now turn to what might be viewed as recurring heresies within American culture [...] When viewed alongside of what we believe of this coming, already/not-yet kingdom, America's efforts at self-improvement, law and order, and the uprooting of every perceived threat will often have the appearance of a carefully orchestrated mass delusion. For a nation, being quick to admit as much, not slow to repent or righteous in its own eyes, will probably be as close as any human instrumentality (or principality or power) will come to glory.

I offer the quote, not as proof or argument, but to point out a line of thought running (I think) parallel to the themes we've touched on in this thread.

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited) · Report post

The discussion around this book seems to have died down a bit, but I thought I would throw this in here. While thinking about this book, I keep coming back to two other authors: David Dark (quoted above) and Slavoj Žižek. Žižek is as different from Griffiths as he could be--a Lacanian-Marxist-Athiest--but there's a certain amount of overlap in their ideas. After reading A Good War, I ordered Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, just to see if the connection I was making between the two authors was valid. Here's what Žižek has to say on the Abu Ghraib scandal (from pages 145-150 of my copy, which is the British, not the American edition; it's in Chapter 5):

In his reaction to the photos showing Iraqi prisoners tortured and humiliated by US soldiers, George Bush, as expected, emphasized how the deeds of the soldiers were isolated crimes [...] And, effectively, the fact that the case turned into a public scandal which put the US administration in a defensive position was itself a positive sign. In a really 'totalitarian' regime, the case would simply have been hushed up.

Then he talks a bit about David Lynch and continues:

It is this feature that brings us to the crux of the matter: to anyone acquainted with the American way of life, the photos immediately evoked the obscene underside of US popular culture--say, the initiation rituals of torture and humiliation one has to undergo in order to be accepted into a closed community [...] In Abu Ghraib, the rituals were not the price to be paid by the prisoners in order to be accepted as 'one of us' but, on the contrary, the very mark of their exclusion.

Then there's some stuff about A Few Good Men and a quotation from Hitchens from around the time the photos came out. Žižek isn't impressed by Hitchen's claim that there were only two explanations (a few bad apples or direct orders):

The problem is that the Abu Ghraib tortures were neither of these two options: while they cannot be reduced to the simple evil acts of individual soldiers, they were, of course, also not directly ordered--they were legitimized by a specific version of the obscene Code Red [the fictional order in A Few Good Men ] To claim that they were the acts of 'mutineers, deserters, or traitors in the field' is the same nonsense as the claim that the Ku Klux Klan lynchings were the acts of traitors to the Western Christian civilization and not the outburst of its own obscene underside [...] Bush was thus wrong: what we are getting when we see the photos [...] is precisely a direct insight into American values, into the very core of obscene enjoyment that sustains the US way of life.

Now, the correspondence between the two authors isn't one-to-one. Griffiths works less on theory and more on intuition, which gives his pronouncements less certainty than Žižek's (this is not a bad thing, exactly, though I tend to prefer theory). And Griffiths is a Theist (and a specific sort of Theist) while Žižek is not [a fact that makes Žižek's handling of religious symbols interesting and provocative, btw]. But if we take Griffiths' work as a "sideways reflection" of its own, I think he intuits some ideas that are very similar to those laid out by Žižek.

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted · Report post

The discussion around this book seems to have died down a bit ...

I'm still working my way through writing a book review. Once I finish it, I'll have some questions and comments on your last couple posts.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!


Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.


Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0