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J.A.A. Purves

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

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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.

Fair enough. I'm looking forward to reading the review.

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My book review.

It was a rough one.

I'm really appreciating this review (spoken in the present tense because I suspect I'll need to go back and re- and re-re-read it). For one thing, it helps clarify for me some of the points at which I think I was talking past you in this very thread; for another, there's just so much to work with:

There is far more to human rights abuse questions than who the perpetrators are. When Edmund Burke famously alluded to how evil is successful, he was looking at the majority ... of us. We would all like to believe that most of us wouldn't do things like Graner and England, and we would probably be right. But we would also like to believe that most of us, if we saw something evil happening, would act - would actually do something to stop it. On this point, history has not encouraged this belief. In fact, the images and and the violence that entertains us so often in our culture today does not encourage this belief either.

The comment about wanting to believe that we're not like England reminds me of René Girard--a previously unknown-to-me author whose I See Satan Fall like Lightning wound up being my Holy Week reading somehow. Of course, Girard argues that we would without doubt behave like England et al because of the force of mimetic contagion--but that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish. Girard's theory has issues that go pretty deep, even though--at least, from this exposure--he's a stimulating read.

That's to the side, though. This is a great review, and I'm going to have to read over it several more times before I feel able to say more about it.

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Thanks.

For all the reading I've done in political philosophy and history, I'd never been directly confronted with how engaging in war affects and shapes a culture and the people within it, or how art about war or art about violence and social injustice can challenge our self-perceptions and assumptions about why we decide to do what we do. That turns out to be ultimately why I value Griffith's book on the subject. The fact that he brings C.S. Lewis, Flannery O'Connor and Susan Sontag to the discussion, among others, doesn't hurt either.

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This seems like as good a place to drop this link as anywhere else: Mark Zoller Seitz just tweeted a link to a two-year-old video essay on 24 which deals with the issue of torture in American film and television:

[A]fter the Supreme Court's Miranda ruling held that suspects had to be advised of their rights prior to questioning, left and right-wing philosophies started fighting it out on movie screens. Representatives of law and order were shown harassing and abusing suspects to get information. When so-called good guys started to torture villains—or just plain suspects—we were put in the uneasy position of wondering whether it was permissible to commit evil in order to prevent it.

Generally speaking, if a villain did it, it was evil. But if a hero did it, it was necessary roughness.

Post-9/11, the concept of "civil liberties" jockeyed for supremacy in a traumatized nation more inclined to err on the side of caution. Caution meant torture. 24used torture as both plot device and a way to make audiences momentarily consider real-world consequences of the Bush administration's new edicts.

FWIW, thanks to this discussion I've started to amass a list of books dealing with the issue of violence. I've got Walter Wink's The Powers that Be ("the myth of redemptive violence") next on my list (after a short history of the Hiroshima bombing). I can't say the issue really interested me all that much before--beyond a mild theoretical interest--so the move is entirely because of this thread.

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David Griffith gets a shout-out in The Millions' latest essay on Flannery O'Connor:

 

One of the most original examinations of [O'Connor's] work and influence is A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America, a sequence of essays by David Griffith. Griffith examines American conceptions of violence in the art and thought of Andy Warhol and Susan Sontag, in films like Pulp FictionBlue Velvet, and The Exorcist, and in everyday life (one essay is titled “Regarding the Electric Chair My Wife’s College Boyfriend Built in His House”). Griffith’s locus is the Abu Ghraib prison photographs. He thinks O’Connor would have found them “grotesque,” but in her own definition, that the grotesque “makes visible hidden ‘discrepancies’ between character and belief.” Abu Ghraib unwound American innocence through shock, in the same metaphorical way her fiction disrupts and disturbs us. Similarly, American public reaction to the photographs — the tendency to identify the perpetrators as in no way representative of “us” — is reflective of O’Connor’s “judgment of what she saw as the modern attitude toward ‘redemption’: Everyone wants it, but no one stops to consider its real cost.”

 

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That reminds me: I really need to revisit Griffith's book.  I bought and read it years ago, and it sent me reeling after a first read through; it's rare that a book gets to me to think in new ways like this one did. There is undoubtedly a lot more to be gleaned from it than one read through can offer.  And, I have A&F to thank for introducing me to it, back when I was still lurking; I purchased it because of J.A.A Purves' review and the thoughtful discussion on this thread. 

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 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 Zizek talking through some of his ideas from that book:

 

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Over on Facebook, Nick Olson posted a link to this piece by William T. Cavanaugh. It's good. And it's part of a symposium called "Torture Re-examined."

 

Meanwhile, let me plug By the Bomb's Early LightIt's specifically about American reactions to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the years 1945-1950. But part six, "The Crisis of Morals and Values," strikes me as very much in line with much of what is discussed in A Good War as well as in the Cavanaugh piece--if only because the moral/ethical/religious arguments about deploying the Bomb were strikingly similar to the arguments going on about torture now. And, indeed, the public response--initial shock and then apathy (and fear that such tactics would be used on us)--is very similar in both instances. Turn, turn, turn.

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