On-screen barbarism: violence in US visual culture

Philip Green


In cinema, the positioning of the mass audience, or at least a large sector of it, has been transformed from that of sympathetic identification to that of pure voyeurism; and thus from an approach centred on competing versions of moral behaviour to one centred on amorality, or more precisely, nihilism. This change, moreover, has taken place, as it only could, with the acquiescence or even participation of that audience. As one historian of Hollywood, David Bordwell, recounts, 'Researchers studying the reception of Judge Dredd (1995) found that fans were happy to list things they liked: "Lots of blood... Explosions... Good effects... Dead Bodies..."'. So there is something happening on both sides of the producer/consumer transaction. But in any event we want to be able to do more than describe, or even indict, this change; we want to ask, why should this be; how did this come about? In an era when the only politics remaining to American consumer/citizens is a politics of retrenchment on the one hand, and the unrestrained pursuit of naked power and wealth on the other, the growing fetishisation of violence no longer seems surprising, any more than does the loss of any critical purchase in mainstream television's typical narratives. The dismissal of justice as limit is but the other side of the coin of the embrace of torture. That is to say, in this important arena of visual culture, contact with the ethical realm has increasingly been broken off. This may be seen as a tacit collaboration, unwitting as it may be, with the Bush Administration's project of ending all restraints on the use of force: what Hegel called, in a chilling phrase, 'the absolutely unfettered will'. This is what we mean by 'barbarism'.

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