Violence, Media & Arms

As indicated in the initial post of 2013, I’m hoping to spend some time addressing a question posed to me by a colleague following the Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut, on December 14, 2012. The specific question, “what responsibility do game designers and entertainment companies have in the fetishization of and desensitization to first-person shooter experiences?” (KL, 12/2012), is directed specifically to a particular kind of video game interface. It was followed by another inquiry, to quote, “What is the balance between exploring these ideas and the road to censorship?”(ibid), tying this rather narrow initial question to a much larger discourse on censorship.

I really have nothing to say about the development of first person shooter games in particular. They are quick to produce and have mass appeal. That said, there may be something too the idea that the manner of play is to gaming what texting is to writing. In these games matches are very short and repetitive. Repetitive behavior, or “habit” is central to the whole notion of the “subject” explored by Hume and today by Deleuze’s students. Zizek asks us, in “Living in the End Times” I believe, to consider if it is possible that one views one’s “virtual self(s)” as more “authentic” or more “honest” to our “true self” than our vital/physical existence.

This past semester, when discussing this notion the students seemed a little troubled, some rather horrified. They know these games rather well, some have make or seek to use their skills to design these games. Others play them or have friends who are enthusiasts. They were all reflecting on the mutability of our own subjectivity. Formulating dangers that boiled down to a concern that, if we remain passive in the development of our own “world view”, we risk abdicating any claim to autonomy. That is, if we are passive, “we do not make media, the media makes us”. [[One of the central questions that my Philosophy of Media course returns to is this, “do we make the media or does the media make us?” this is with a nod to a Heideggerian notion: “It is not we who speak language, but language which speaks us”.]]

So there is an issue of repetitive behavior in the constitution of what we as subjects “are” so to speak. Indeed it is this idea of ‘repetition’ or ‘habit’ which is central to a whole (Hellenic) notion of what it means to be an autonomous subject, it is tied, not just by Deleuze but by late Foucault as well, to what it might mean to practice an “ethics”, a “discipline of the self”. In short, for Foucault, if we do not cultivate our own discipline(s) of the self than we more than likely will be subjects to the disciplines of the institutional regimes which constitute our lives (work, school, public, private, etc.) For my own part, I certainly take something from all of this, but it is not the totality of ‘ethics’.

There is nothing particular to video games in any of these notions, nor is it anything like a “sociology of media”. Fully consistent with the logic of the NRA, “how may people with a crap-ton of violent media are law abiding, hard working, normal people”. What I find particularly interesting are the discourses that emerge after the horrific incident and the formula of media presentation. I’ve reduced these discourses to media, arms and violence. There is another discourse of mental and emotional health in the US, but that seems to be tied principally to the, “guns are too easy to get your hands on in the US” argument.

The first two, media and arms, were our villains, depending on the ‘camp’. So broadly speaking, the NRA blamed ‘violence in our culture’ (i.e., movies, TV, and Video Games). While everyone else (esp. the “media”) blamed easy access to Assault Rifles (citing over and over after market gun show sales which proceed sans background check). However, both sides condemned the act for its violence. I think this is dishonest, however, serves as the condition to open up the discourses on assigning sources of violence in the world. That is, we have settled on “violence=bad”. On this point I am close to Zizek, that is, “what do we mean by violence”. For Zizek, violence is something like a ‘disruption in the normal functioning of things’.


So with Zizek, I want to hold off on a categorical illegitimacy of violence. But I also want to ask, why is it legitimate to blame a real act of horror on ‘fictions’? If we can blame among other things, cartoons, for actual tragedy, aren’t we already admitting that the distinction between fiction and ‘the real’ is not mutually exclusive. That is what is counted as ‘real’, like ‘violence’, is a question not an axiom or an answer.