When I started studying the history of debates over children’s television, I was struck at how the principal critics of kidvid in the 1970s and 1980s set the terms of their declension narrative. For them, Saturday morning television was destroying a blissfully innocent experience of childhood that was both recent and eternal, the way it had always been and the way that the anti-kidvid activists had chosen to remember their own childhoods of the 1940s and 1950s.
I can understand how a person who was 10 in 1953 might see the television programs of the late 1960s and early 1970s as different and in some respect more “violent”. But that perception requires a lot of forgetting as well, not just about some of the media available to children in 1953 but about the wider world that many American children were at least somewhat exposed to. Moreover, if you widen the historical frame even slightly, what becomes clear is that the 1950s were unusual rather than typical, that representations of extraordinary violence have been far more the norm in both popular and high culture in the West.
Harold Schechter’s book Savage Pastimes is a very compact, dense recounting of that typicality. It’s a very useful addition to a group of texts that I privately refer to as “media effects heretics” that poke holes in what remains a powerful and basically smug middle-class consensus about violence, media and mass audiences. Schechter goes right for the jugular in his first chapter: “If–as historical evidence suggests–people have always been entertained by torture, mutiliation, horror and gore; and if daily life in the past was far more brutal than it is today, then an interesting question is raised…The current uproar over media sensationalism rests on two premises: that popular culture is significantly more vicious and depraved than it used to be be, and that we live in uniquely violent times. Everyone seems to accept these propositions as the obvious, irrefutable truth. But what if everyone is wrong?” (p. 14)
As Schechter recounts it, everyone is indeed wrong. On the history of violence in art and entertainment, I can’t see how anyone could argue against the case he lays out. When we think that films like Saw or Hostel are somehow a unique sign of contemporary degredation, unprecedented representations, we’re forgetting a wide swath of European and American expressive culture in the last five centuries. We forget partly because we haven’t preserved or canonized penny dreadfuls or Grand Guignol in the same way as we do “literature”. But as Schechter observes, a lot of people are also editing their own memories of culture–forgetting how violent The Shadow was on radio, or the violence of Westerns (even those intended for children) in the 1950s. Schechter mentions the lyrics of “Tom Dooley”, an explicit song about murder that I remember listening to on my father’s Kingston Trio records. Sometimes we’re ignoring what’s in plain sight in the Western tradition. Mel Gibson was hardly the first person to visualize the bloody sufferings of Christ. The Iliad is full of gruesome scenes. Schechter spends a good deal of time reminding his readers of how popular executions were as a form of mass entertainment until very recently (and arguably, as he observes, they’ve never stopped being popular, but have simply moved into new media forms and genres).
The danger with a cultural history like Schechter’s is that such an insistent debunking of a declension narrative, an insistence that as it is now, it has ever been, can end up having a dehistoricizing effect. E.g., it can end up seeming to argue that nothing ever changes, and that’s the big weakness of Schechter’s presentation. A lot of cultural history gets flattened out here and the result is a simplistic kind of cyclical account.
I do think there can be highly “local” shifts in the way violence is represented in various genres of media. Saw or Hostel do seem to me to be different than I Spit on Your Grave or the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example. But that comparison illustrates part of the problem: you have to figure out what the appropriate “lineage” for a current work is in order to accurately identify movement in the mode or form of represented violence. A lot of media critics take a film like Hostel and compare it instead to Psycho, which is like claiming that someone’s third cousin once removed is actually his father.
Schechter suggests that the recurrence of strong, grotesque or vivid images of violence in mass entertainment underlines the extent to which violence both experienced and imagined is a crucial part of the human condition, that we could no more do without violence in our media than we could do without love or family or sadness or sex or faith.
He also does a good job of demolishing the supposed “scientific” consensus about how violent media cause violent behavior. For me, that was one of the big surprises from researching Saturday Morning Fever, to find just how weak the foundation for those claims is both theoretically and empirically. But given that, I’m more and more curious about something that Schechter doesn’t really explore. If violent entertainment is a recurrent part of the Western cultural tradition, then so too is the consensus among educated elites or within bourgeois society that such entertainment poses a social danger. When I talk with parents who are anxious about violence in video games, I’m well aware that their anxiety isn’t exactly based on detailed readings of the scholarly literature about the effects of violent media. They may repeat or parrot those findings, but only because they support a consensus whose power and ubiquity derives from somewhere else. If the experts who fulminate against violence in the media did not exist, middle-class culture would invent them. In many ways, I think that’s exactly what happened: the experts did not create the consensus but were created (or at least funded) by it.
That to me is the interesting question that follows on Schechter’s cultural history: what is generating the discourse of “respectable voices” about violent entertainment that consistently shadows or trails those texts? I’m uncomfortable with some of the easy instrumental answers that occur to me: that it’s about the modern state’s attempt to assert power through a censorship function, that it’s about bourgeois attempts to surveil and regulate mass culture and mass audiences, and so on. Some of the critique of violence is also about the attempt to come to grips with the mysteries of representation and causality. Because if violent representation doesn’t simplistically cause violent action, neither is it a pure mirror. Expressive culture is an inventory of our possibilities, our dreams, our fears: it changes us. Not from innocents to monsters, but something far messier, more interior, less about action and more about subjectivity, about what and how we feel, about our idealized models of selfhood. (And about what we regard as demonic or shameful ways of being and acting.)
There’s also a question of how we can learn to voice our desires for particular kinds of culture without building sociological dream castles or mobilizing experts. I mean, I don’t like Hostel or Saw myself. Not just as films I don’t want to see, or have a personal dislike for. In some ways, I wish they had never been made. I don’t enjoy the recent local trend towards graphic disembowelings and so on in many of the superhero comics I read–but that’s an intensely local and historicized sensation for me. I don’t object to the violence in a comic like Invincible because that was the mode of the character’s representation from his very beginning; I object when a character whose entire history has been about a kind of idealized innocence is suddenly ripping people’s heads off. But it seems very hard for people to argue about what such representations mean, or to muster a criticism of such images, without rolling out the media-effects apparatus and waving the declensionist flag about how our society is going to hell in a handbasket, and therefore walking right into the mythographies that Schechter rightfully exposes as delusions. Maybe we could learn to ask more specific, modest interpretative and aesthetic questions of particular images of violence? To ask not “What is that image doing to society?” but instead, “What is that image doing in this particular work of culture? What aesthetic, thematic, narrative work is it doing within this text?”. Eventually from that question you can get to a question of reception and audience, but therefore a much more granular and specific kind of impact on a given audience and a given moment of reception rather than effects on the whole of “society”.