THE HFG REVIEW OF RESEARCH (Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 2000)

Trying to Tell the Truth about Violence: Some Difficulties
Robert Knox Dentan

The Pornography of Violence

[This is] the central dilemma of all efforts at witnessing. In the midst of a massacre, in the face of torture, in the eye of a hurricane, in the aftermath of an earthquake, or even, say, when horror looms apparently more gently in memories that won't recede and so come pouring forth in the late-night quiet of a kitchen. . . . do you the observer, stay behind the lens of the camera, switch on the tape recorder, keep pen in hand? Are there limits—of respect, piety, pathos—that should not be crossed, even to leave a record? But if you can't stop the horror, shouldn't you at least document it? (Behar 1996:2)

I don't know much about pornography but I do watch the news, so I have a clue. (Cain 1999:1)

American popular culture increasingly revolves around cruelty (see, e.g., Matthews 1997, 1998; Nuruddin Farah 1996; Seltzer 1997; Weiss 1995). Mass media highlight violence, particularly against children, linking condemnation to constant obsessive replays. More abstract cruelties receive social acclaim: Both major political parties hailed balancing the federal budget and impoverishing over a million children as a great victory for children; CEOs who "downsize" breadwinners, again impoverishing children, become rich.

Fearfulness and moralizing aside, Americans practice and approve of violence. Widespread approval of violence in other spheres of life cannot help but influence what goes on in the family [within which most American violence occurs]. Moreover, there is evidence to show it is a circular process: the violence occurring in the family is one of the things that make for a violence-approving society in other spheres of life. (Straus 1974:61 and citations therein)

The glorification of violence, the "pornography of violence," which we decent folks condemn, requires perverse and obsessive denial and repression of the real effects of violent action.... [W]e know it pricks our interest and that, neurotically almost, we work obsessively, impossibly, to avoid contaminating ourselves. (Redding 1998:13-14)

This pervasive mystifying ambivalence makes talking about violence a tricky job. Trickiest of all is the issue of cruelty to children, perhaps the most disquieting type of cruelty. Let's be clear about the facts. Slavers—there are still lots of them—target children. In war, combatants focus on children. Micaela, 11, who survived the massacre at Acteal, Chiapas, on 22 December 1997, told Christina Eber, a mutual friend, that the killers cried "Destroy the seed!" (cf. Abramson 1998; Nordstrom 1997:5). American media are awash in images and stories of cruelty to children. That means they're popular enough to sell soap. Simultaneously, people who try to understand it and represent it accurately may be accused of peddling pornography. The ambivalence of Americans is almost as disquieting as the cruelties themselves.

In response, Academe shies away in denial of violence. Where the media reflect and generate a "pathologic compulsion to look at scenes of torture and murder" (Huppauf 1997:4), academic writing swallows it up. The result resembles the Human Relations Area Files handbook for categorizing ethnographic information (Murdock et al. 1982): 283 Cordage, 567 Slavery, 615 Phratries, 715 Military Vehicles. Everything evens out emotionally, disappears into "professional" detachment (Bloch 1998; Dentan 1995, 1997; Nordstrom 1997:16-20; Ortner 1995). Reality becomes fog.

What does "pornography of violence" mean? You'd think something like "emotionally arousing material that focusses on doing harm to people in a way that, perhaps tacitly, seems to condone that behavior in order to gratify the author or reader" (paraphrasing Russell 1993:3-12). It would present victims as dehumanized commodities, and be itself a commodity, coarsening people's sensibilities and implicitly encouraging violence (ibid., 15-21). If the objects of cruelty were "people of color," this representation might reflect or promote racism (Nuruddin Farah 1996; cf. Dentan 1997).

But "academic debates...often privilege the textual and find 'pornography' in texts many others would consider too dreary to read" (Wicke 1991:75). Teaching about violence becomes suspect. You lay yourself open to all sorts of accusations, by colleagues and students alike, although the chance that a scholarly lecture is going to titillate potential consumers of the pornography of violence seems "minimal" ( Russell 1993:xii).

Amidst the flood of violent imagery—every day on TV, on the newsstands and in the drugstores, everywhere—this academic prudery seems like combing your hair in a tornado. Depicting violence may upset or offend people: it should, I think. Violence, in fact, is revolting. An accurate depiction must be that, too. If not, it depersonalizes both the perpetrators and, especially, the victims of violence. Years ago George Orwell pointed out how convenient denaturing academese is for violent oppressors (1956). What is the difference between talking about slaving, which makes women and children objects of sexual and physical abuse, as "servility" (Cohen 1970:165-166) or "recruitment to relations of dependence" (Sullivan 1982) and talking about "the liquidation of the kulaks" or "the final solution to the Jewish problem"? Phrases like these reflect, maintain, or hide the oppressors' insensitivity to the plight of the people they hurt. The "fiction of critical distance produces further fictions of closure," as if the violence were over (Hebard 1997:88). Now that's "coarsening people's sensibilities and implicitly encouraging violence." In this sense, the social scientific language metapornographers favor is also pornography, feeding consumers' coldness.

And declaring violence off limits doesn't help the victims, though it may let faculty and students feel good about ourselves by obviating the need to assess our own complicated responses to cruelty. One thing I've learned from twice teaching a course on violence is that anyone who has ever suffered cruelty—and most people have—responds ambivalently to its representation. More positively, trying to recreate the experience of violence, rather than describing it from a safe academic distance, might—just might—mobilize emotional responses with the same sort of reformist political potential as the associated conceptual responses (Nordstrom 1997:xvii-xviii).

A Personal Note

There is a powerful yet often unstated cultural perception that hearing about violence is, in some curious existential inversion, worse than enduring it. . . .

. . . [W]hen I describe a body tortured by fellow humans, it becomes a field for cautionary tales of "pornography of violence." . . .

One question I encounter from western audiences I find particularly offensive. Phrased both delicately and not so delicately, people want to know why I do this research. Do I get some kind of thrill from it? (Nordstrom 1997:17-19)

Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love
These are the terms, take them or leave them...
(Rich 1986:33)

Is my own interest in violence prurient? I came to study violence by chance, by happening to do fieldwork with Semai, a people so peaceable that a colleague suggested I subtitle my report "A Nonviolent People" (Dentan 1979). Trying to understand their nonviolence required studying violence. Besides, I live in a violent society and I think it's important to try to understand violence.

Since any and all events can be lifted by men of bad faith out of their normal contexts and projected onto others and thus consequently condemned, since one's thoughts can be interpreted in terms of such extreme implications as to reduce them to absurdity or subversion, obviously a mere declaration of good faith is not enough. In an all-pervading climate of intellectual evasion or dishonesty, everything becomes dishonest. . . . To imagine straight communication is no longer possible is to declare that the world we seek to defend is no longer worth defending, that the battle for human freedom is already lost. . . . Have you taken your passions, your illusions, your time, and your circumstances into account? . . . More than that no reasonable man of good will can demand. (Wright 1993:428-429)

You wouldn't ask the question if I were studying economic "development." I'm not sure it's more relevant here than there (cf. Nordstrom 1997:16-19). Still, because of my personal background, cruelty is particularly upsetting to me, while at the same time it holds my attention, stirring up dark ambivalences of love and copycat cruelty. I don't like it: cruelty to other people calls up old pain and despair, which make me afraid, and I deal with the fear by becoming angry, the way good American men should. "Unresolved issues" goes the jargon. But who has resolved these issues?

What I would say, I guess, if you ask my reasons for teaching about violence is what Dido said in welcoming Aeneas, who later betrayed her: Haud ignara mali miseris succurrere disco, which I read, loosely, as saying "Firsthand familiarity with evil put me on the side of people in misery." But no protestation of innocence is convincing, is it?

I am writing this in a time
when anything we write
can be used against those we love
where the context is never given
though we try to explain, over and over.
(Rich 1986:35)

Some Class Notes

I'm not happy with how the two classes I taught went. The infrastructure never got pulled together and the course structure went haywire as a result. There was less class discussion, and less discussion of issues the readings and movies raised, than I initially envisaged. The modification in format made it harder to teach the class as a set of questions and nudged it towards a teacher-knows-best mode. That's always seductive for a crypto-authoritarian like myself but not, I think, the best way to teach this troubling topic.

The first class was for "untraditional" (old) students, many of whom knew violence firsthand: pacifists, ex-cons, social workers, etc. I learned a lot from them, most of it disturbing. My initial course description was pretty intellectual: "theory, representation and resolution of violence." But I began to realize that the representation and conceptualization of violence in the U.S. is so thoroughly mystified that the phenomenon itself is obscured. Violence seems dramatic, colorful, telegenic, intriguing, fun.

For the less sophisticated and experienced students in the next class (freshmen, many in an honors program), the goal became to show (a) most violence is routinized, "degrading" for all involved in both the new military and old moral sense; (b) the effects, which don't make good visuals, are longlasting and saddening; (c) the students were more involved, personally, as agents, victims, and beneficiaries than they might think. It didn't seem fair to ask students to talk about their own lives without sharing experiences I had.

Coincidentally, I'd been working with kids in my neighborhood, escorting a group of girl scouts to meetings, for example. The kids talked to me, openly or in confidence, about their lives, often describing routine cruelties that left me feeling shaken but powerless to intervene, to "fix" things without doing even worse damage. I realized that I needed to emphasize how poisonous attitudes like "boys will be boys" are, the idea that boys are "tough," the acceptance of school hazing as "natural," and the dismissal of children's pain as "childishness." But the upsetting stories from these kids fed into the disturbing materials of the class, and vice versa, in an accelerating feedback loop.

Also, for student volunteers, I showed over a dozen movies. The specificity of movie images helped bring violence to life. "Farewell My Concubine," e.g., raises the issue of how much brutalization it is proper to subject children to so that for a brief period their esthetic or athletic skills are so wonderful that we are all exalted. One day, after weeks of talking about violence, because of a scheduling glitch we saw both "Soldier Child" and "Night and Fog." I came undone. Solutions to this violence seem pitiful in comparison with the humdrum daily routine of degradation and pain. I wept silently. Several students took this as permission to grieve too, and did.

Commenting on the course, students said they found it disturbing. They wept after class, they said, had nightmares and obsessive thoughts. They suggested keeping journals of their feelings or talking more about feelings in class. I found the class upsetting too, and didn't want to teach it next semester. Still, student evaluations were overwhelmingly and enthusiastically positive, far more so than honors students usually provide. "Best class I've ever had," for example, and "Everyone should have to take this class."


Yet another logistical glitch left me teaching this class once again this semester—overload. I told the students I was going to cancel it but, since they'd bothered to show up, ran a session which got them talking to each other. Then I said I'd informally tutor two or three students who were taking the class because they were seriously interested in violence. I then left the room, so that people could slip away without worrying about hurting my feelings. When I came back, no one had left. They petitioned me for the class to continue, promising to work diligently and to take over as much of the infrastructural work (xeroxing, scheduling movies, transporting people who needed it, etc.) as possible. I was moved.

And that allows me, against my normal bias, to suggest a couple of positives that emerge from these three sessions. First, these classes attracted an astonishingly wide variety of people, far more so than other classes I've taught: people from different majors, classes, ages, ethnicities, politics, religions; people who agreed with each other about almost nothing. I'd expected lots of anthropology and American Studies people: not so. Second, they developed an equally surprising esprit de corps. These students seem able to cooperate and respect each other far more than I usually find. I think maybe these two phenomena reflect the fact, if it is a fact, that these classes attract people who are really concerned with understanding violence, serious people, not people seeking a jolt of violent pornography. The things that divide them are less important than this common concern. This isn't the usual random boring mishmash of majors fulfilling requirements and timeservers looking for convenient times.

So what I want to tell you is: the material is upsetting and depressing, but the students are a joy to teach.

Robert Knox Dentan is Professor in the Department of American Studies and Anthropology at the State University of New York/University at Buffalo. An HFG grantee, he is the author of the ethnographic classic, The Semai: A Nonviolent People of Malaya (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979).


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