Seeing Through Violence

March 24, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

Instead of grumbling about violence in media and the movies, lets consider what sort of work it’s doing.  Granted, this is the United States, where violence seems to dominate imaginative life from TV to exterminatory video games.  And you know the conventional wisdom: that violence onscreen incites us – or (ahem) if not us, then certainly the impressionable young – to aggression.  And the other face of the argument gets equal time, especially from pious broadcasters: that representations of violence have no lasting effect on us, or may even serve as a safety valve to co-opt the aggression viewers’ feel.

Put that debate aside for a moment.

What’s worth pondering is the way violence disrupts our “natural” sense of the world as safe, sensible and natural.  I call this the magic circle of everyday reality, the zone we’re taught to expect from babyhood.   You can think of it as the sum of beliefs that support our basic trust in the world.  We think of it as “what’s right.”  Its implicit rules and familiar patterns make it possible to anticipate events and behavior, and to cope sensibly when things fool us or go wrong.

When what’s right prevails, the world makes sense – and so does the self.  You could say that what’s right is a critical component of the operating system that makes it possible for us to manage the overwhelming world in which we find ourselves.

We adjust to the world and grow by continually coping with disruptions of what’s right.  Every surprise, from a sudden wink of affection and a broken shoelace to a tsunami, challenges imagination to test and the magic circle and recreate it more convincingly.   Conflicts and incongruities make us more realistic.  In a sense this is adaptation and evolution.

In this light, violence is a radical form of a process so common in mental life that we scarcely notice it.  As a representation, violence is an emergency signpost indicating that imagination has to undertake some problem-solving action and recreate our mental world.  As a blazing signpost, violence calls attention to our need to overcome inertia and safety in order to stay lively in a demanding world.  It shouts that what’s right can become self-regarding and stagnant.

In this light television violence can be seen as crude tool for dramatizing the cognitive process of recreating our conception of the world.  TV writers could present more sophisticated and abstract conflicts as provocations, but of course they’re paid to reach out to a mass audience and stimulate maximum excitement.

No question, such signposts are often raw, simplistic, and even perverse.  George Gerbner, the media analyst, has shown, for example, that too much TV generates the false mindset that he calls “the mean world syndrome” – a belief that the neighborhood outside your door is more dangerous than in truth it is.  Shrink from violence, and it can paralyze you.  But if you study it as a marker, as Gerbner has done, violence can illuminate the processes that lock us up in the shadows in front of a deadening screen.  What assumptions about life is this instance of violence disrupting?  And why?  What should I think – or do – about it?

It helps, in a word, to look at violence as a technology for confronting our prejudices about the world – denial.  A  gang fight or an earthquake a cruel political maneuver seems to be all fury, anything but a technology for making us more aware.  But if you step back, if you look at the play of what’s right, however vicious, you can make out the challenge to adaptation: to be more realistic.



  1. I accept the theory, but am concerned about the extent and nature of violence and violence portrayal in the US. The book “On Killing” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman summarizes the dramatic change in training soldiers between WWII and Vietnam, leading to 90% shoot-to-kill performance in the latter war, compared with an amazing 20% in the era of WWII, WWI, Civil War, etc. And with Vietnam came PTSD. He notes that about 3% had no compunction about killing, and they tested high on psychopathy/sociopathy scales. One might say that we have 3% psychopaths in the population and they get 50% (who knows?) of the media coverage–news and entertainment. So most people think the world is much more dangerous that it really is. That’s externalizing the death-threat. Each nightly news program about killing lets us go to sleep thinking someone else took the bullet for me, I’m still alive. As Otto Rank said, we are not that far removed from the old ritual of human sacrifice.

  2. […] a recent post I called attention to the way media and public thinking often *use* violence as shorthand to mark a […]

  3. Make sure to read Kirby’s response to Jim Lieberman at https://thedenialfile.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/thinking-through-violence/

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