American Atrocity: The Stylization of Violence

I think the twentieth century reaches just about its highest expression on the highway. Everything is there, the speed and violence of our age, its love of stylization, fashion, the organizational side of things – what I call the elaborately signalled landscape.

—J.G Ballard, Extreme Metaphors 

Is there not something suspicious, indeed symptomatic, about this focus on subjective violence-that violence which is enacted by social agents, evil individuals, disciplined repressive apparatuses, fanatical crowds? Doesn’t it desperately try to distract our attention from the true locus of trouble, by obliterating from view other forms of violence and thus actively participating in them?

—Slavoj Zizek, Violence 

Of late I’ve been rereading William T. Vollman’s Rising Up and Rising Down – Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means, a work he spent thirteen years writing and which when first published came out in seven volumes. I’m reading the one volume edition which in itself is still quite lengthy at 705 pages. My studies this year seem to have shifted several times, and have now turned toward this dark part of the human compass: violence. Thinking on the recent strangeness and bewildering madness of the massacres in Las Vegas where Stephen Craig Paddock from the Mandalay Hotel apparently motiveless at this time (?) murdered 58 people enjoying a country rock outdoor festival.

I remember reading Berardi’s book last year in which he argued that our world had become not only virtualized, but that many people live their lives as if they were inside a live-action MMO playing out the avatar heroics of some never-ending game in which they are both victim and savior. Not only that but that many men have over time become desensitized to the point that all empathy and fellow feeling has vanished. We’ve become a full blown sociopathic society whose only passion is violence and mayhem. This depersonalization and fragmentation of subject and work and play produces Berardi will tell us new forms of violence and rage. The psychopathology of mass murder in our time becomes a form of this whole inversion of the fragmentation and depersonalization of self and life, which leads to each moment as a simulated virtual game in which we are all immersed in the virtual unified field of fantasy realm in which the programs that run the coded reality scenarios also infects and acts impersonally on us as if we were all zombies, robots, and puppets controlled by the vectors of impossible nightmares.

Nike’s motto: Just do it! he tells us becomes for many of these suffering young men the inner truth of that cycle of depression, catatonia and psychotic acting out that can culminate into spectacular murderous suicide. (KL 710)

Just do it: violence, explosion, suicide. Killing and being killed are linked in this kind of acting out, although the murderer may, exceptionally, survive. When running amok, the borders between one’s body and the surrounding universe are blurred, and so is the limit between killing and being killed. Panic, in fact, is the simultaneous perception of the totality of possible stimulations, the simultaneous experience of everything, of every past, every future. In this state of mental alteration the distinction between the self and the universe collapses. (KL 711)

The point he is making is that in our age of digital connection the psychotic framework of hyper-stimulation and constant mobilization of nervous energy is pushing people, especially suggestible young people, socially marginalized and precarious, to a different kind of acting out: an explosive demonstration of energy, a violent mobilization of the body, which culminates in the aggressive, murderous explosion of the self.(KL 715)

In many ways America is a fantasyland of violence where people live so close to the threat of horror, death, and mayhem that they’ve even stylized it in their daily lives of entertainment through stadium and televised Football, Wide World of Wrestling, Car racing, survival TV, Paint Ball, and hundreds of other lesser games of violence both real and virtual. J.G. Ballard commenting on this culture of violence and entertainment once surmised,

A car crash harnesses elements of eroticism, aggression, desire, speed, drama, kinesthetic factors, the stylizing of motion, consumer goods, status – all these in one event. I myself see the car crash as a tremendous sexual event really, a liberation of human and machine libido (if there is such a thing). That’s why the death in a crash of a famous person is a unique event – whether it’s Jayne Mansfield or James Dean – it takes place within this most potent of all consumer durables. Aircraft crashes don’t carry any of these elements whatever – they’re totally tragic and totally meaningless.2

This recent event falls into that latter category of tragic and meaningless: this sense of helplessness in both the authorities, media, and populace at large that such an act of violent terror could have no motive other than total rage and despair, self-hatred to the point that it turns outward (as Freud suggested ages ago) toward all those others who become both scapegoat and sacrifice to the self-immolating madness of the sado-masochistic death drive of a lunatic. Instead of the Ballardian erotics of sublime and sensual annihilation in the epitome of capitalist consumer lifestyle, Paddock and his ilk are more like the grotesque and thanatropic outriders of a nightmare world of hate and self-annihilating bitterness and drunken torpor, a rage at the light rather than its iconic glamour. Paddock with his breaking of the contract with life entered the space of unreason, allowed the forces of entropy to take him down that path of nullity where his only freedom was a self-lacerating rage against everything he wasn’t.

We’ve all known for a long while that good news does not sell, that bad news is the order of the day and our news outlets, our games of entertainment, our reading material, our cinemas and televisions are replete with the dark inhumanity of man and nature, violence, dread, and terror. Why? We all know violence is bad, and yet in our perverse  heart of heart’s we’re also excited by violence, and if we are attracted to it, it may be for good reasons. Even as we deny it we secretly are infatuated by violence. A perversity of human nature? The important thing is that violence is a show. All of us have made the world in which we live – we’re not forced to watch the newsreels on television, we don’t have to look at the pictures in illustrated magazines. War, if it is a show, is a show at which we are the paying audience, let’s remember that. As Ballard admonishes us “All I’m saying is that one ought to be honest about one’s responses. People didn’t in fact feel the kind of automatic revulsion to the Biafra war that they were told they should feel. They were stirred, excited, involved. It may be that one needs a certain sort of salt in one’s emotional diet.” (EM, KL 735-739)

Although our central nervous systems have been handed to us on a plate by millions of years of evolution, have been trained to respond to violence at the level of fingertip and nerve ending, in fact now our only experience of violence is in the head, in terms of our imagination, the last place where we were designed to deal with violence. We have absolutely no biological training to deal with violence in imaginative terms. And our whole inherited expertise for dealing with violence, our central nervous systems, our musculature, our senses, our ability to run fast or to react quickly, our reflexes, all that inherited expertise is never used. We sit passively in cinemas watching movies like The Wild Bunch where violence is just a style. (EM, KL 849)

Here we are all dressed up in our finery playing the role of ultra-modern citizens of a progressive technological civilization, telling ourselves that we are peace loving people who wouldn’t hurt a fly. All lies, for under the veneer of glitz we are still those wild inhuman animals of the savannahs that roamed the wild lands of Africa, Asia, and Europe thousands of years ago. Our emotional and passional selves are still bound by the habits of hundreds of thousands of years of animal life, habitual ways of violence, fear, and despair in a natural environment in which we more times that we’d like to believe were the hunted rather than the hunter, victims of predatory creatures much more efficient at killing that we have ever been until our technological age.

Even that heretic of the Left, the Lacanian-Hegel, Slavoj Zizek reminds us that subjective violence is just the most visible portion of a triumvirate that also includes two objective kinds of violence. First, there is a “symbolic” violence embodied in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call “our house of being.”  This violence is not only at work in the obvious-and extensively studied-cases of incitement and of the relations of social domination reproduced in our habitual speech forms: there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning. Second, there is what Zizek calls “systemic” violence, or the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.3

Another aspect is that there is something inherently mystifying in a direct confrontation with violent acts like the Las Vegas massacre: the overpowering horror of such violent acts and empathy with the victims inexorably function as a lure which prevents us from thinking. A dispassionate conceptual development of the typology of violence must by definition ignore its traumatic impact. Yet there is a sense in which a cold analysis of violence somehow reproduces and participates in its horror. (Violence, pp. 3-4) It’s this sense of voyeurism, the strange relation we have with news as both in-formed awareness and entertainment, spectacle and sport that underlies American unthinking acceptance of violence as part of our society. We’ve included violence as entertainment in our imaginary lives in sex, economics, and everyday life. Violence has become so ubiquitous and invisible that when it raises its ugly head and binds us to its monstrous acts we are not just shocked but infatuated by the madness and insanity of it in our lives.

Zizek relates that the Lacanian difference between reality and the Real is simply that “reality” is the social reality of the actual people involved in interaction and in the productive processes, while the Real is the inexorable “abstract,” spectral logic of capital that determines what goes on in social reality. One can experience this gap in a palpable way when one visits a country where life is obviously in shambles. We see a lot of ecological decay and human misery. (Violence, p. 13) In other words the actual events of the Las Vegan massacre with the now past truth of all those real victims who suffered the shock of madness, the fear and terror, the pain and suffering of loved one’s murdered and wounded is the underlying reality of the event. While all the abstract commentary, news broadcasts, media frenzy and speculation on this reality is the cold dark abstraction of an impersonal machinic capitalism displacing the reality for the Real, wiping and erasing the event itself with a spectral logic of hyperreflection and overlays of imposed narratives and fictions, fantasy news that will replace the actual event with the prefabricated and staged show of media spectacle.

As Hannah Arendt once suggested of the purges and atrocities of Hitler and Stalin: these figures were not personifications of sublime Byronesque demonic evil: the gap between their intimate experience and the horror of their acts was immense. The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie – the truth lies outside, in what we do. (Z, p. 47) Moment by moment the facts of this tragic event are lured into the vast media machine, rescripted according to political and ideological formats, dramatized with staged commentary and docudrama tales from experts, eyewitnesses, families of survivors, tales of heroism, of tears and funerals, symbols of despair and hope. All the while the repetitions of the perpetrator and his monstrous act are scripted to show his sordid life in all its strange and bewildering array of violence, drunkenness, and cowardly cynicism, along with the continued narrative of the missing ‘motive’, the underlying thread of terror, plan, conspiracy…

Pat Pittman in the Encyclopedia of Murder was struck by the notion that mass murder and even sex crimes and serial killers in large part are a modern problem rather than something ancient. As Pittman reflected “sex crime was not, as I had always supposed, as old as history, but was a fairly recent phenomenon”.4 It was true that soldiers had always committed rape in wartime, and that sadists like Tiberius, Ivan the Terrible, Vlad the Impaler and Gilles de Rais certainly qualify as sex criminals; but in our modern sense of the word – that is, a man who commits rape because his sexual desires tend to run out of control – sex murder makes its first unambiguous appearance in the late nineteenth century. The Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 and the murders of the French “disemboweller” Joseph Vacher in the 1890s are among the first recorded examples. Some of the most famous sex crimes of the century occurred after the First World War: these included the murders of the “Düsseldorf Vampire” Peter Kürten, of America’s “Gorilla Murderer” Earle Nelson, of the child killer Albert Fish, and the extraordinary crimes of the Hungarian Sylvestre Matushka, who experienced orgasm as he blew up trains. (SK, KL 97-104)

Crimes like these were regarded as the solitary aberrations of madmen, and scarcely came to the attention of the general public. The crimes of an American mass murderer named Herman Webster Mudgett, alias Henry Howard Holmes, should be noted as an exception. Holmes began as a confidence trickster, and in the late 1880s he built himself a large house in a Chicago suburb that would become known as ‘Murder Castle’. When Holmes was arrested in 1894 for involvement in a swindle, police soon came to suspect that he was responsible for the murder of an associate named Pitezel, and three of Pitezel’s children. Further investigation revealed that Holmes had murdered a number of ex-mistresses, as well as women who had declined to become his mistress. Moreover, as Holmes himself confessed, killing had finally become an addiction which, he believed, had turned him into a monster. The total number of his murders is believed to be twenty-seven, and they qualify him as America’s first serial killer. He was hanged in 1896. (SK, KL 185-193)

FBI analysts define a serial killer as a murderer who is involved in three or more separate events, with an emotional cooling-off period between each homicide.  This cooling-off period is the main trait which distinguishes the serial killer from all other multiple murderers. Other identifiable differences may be found in their choice of victim. Serial killers tend to preselect a type of victim to murder, whereas classic mass murderers and spree killers will both murder whichever human targets happen to present themselves. Similarly the serial killer controls the successive stages of each murder he commits (to a larger or lesser degree, depending whether he is an organised or disorganised offender); while neither the classic mass murderer nor the spree killer is likely to have an opportunity to do so once the law enforcement agency concerned closes in on him. (SK, KL 1839)

We know that the Las Vegas killer was planning other events and venues for a continued foray in mass murder, so must conclude that although he didn’t have an opportunity to continue that he would have if he’d of survived. We also know that many classic mass murderers also seem not to want to live, once their own compulsive urge to kill has abated. Some, like Marc Lepine, then shoot themselves. Others – Charles Whitman, for example – carry on killing until the law enforcement agency concerned is left with no recourse but to kill them; offender behavior which some regard not as defiance of authority, but as an oblique form of suicide. (SK, KL 1852)

We know the Las Vegas killer committed suicide but left no note. As Colin Wilson explains:

Perhaps the most basic characteristic of the serial killer is one that he shares with most other criminals: a tendency to an irrational self-pity that can produce an explosion of violence. (SK 4996)

Another aspect is that Paddock like Ted Bundy, was an extremely heavy drinker. Alcohol had the same effect on Paddock and Bundy that drugs had on the Manson clan, creating a sense of unreality, a kind of moral vacuum without inhibitions. In this vacuum, murder meant very little. (SK, KL 4993)

Another factor is fame and recognition. As the “Monster of the Andes” Daniel Camargo Barbosa (During 1986, he raped and murdered seventy-two women and girls in the area of the port of Guayaquil.) once told an investigator when asked why he killed all those people, said:

‘When one has been the victim of traumatic experiences in childhood, one grows up with the mental conditions for committing these acts’… (SK, KL 5172)

All self-confessions aside, all analysis or commentary or reflection, philosophy, sociology, criminology, etc. – and, strangely the FBI and all other agencies have failed to discover a motive or reason behind the Las Vegas killings as of yet – we may never know why Paddock committed this atrocity. I’m sure we will see books on this shortly coming up with every type of motive, reason, conspiracy, or strange twist to a sordid tale; along with memorials to the victims and the heroes who helped during this event. All part of a slow recovery from the hidden truth that we are all capable of such hideous violence given the right circumstances, even if we deny that such actions are possible for such law abiding and upright moral creatures as ourselves. Once you strip us of all that façade of moral cant we are like such madmen nothing more than animals and monsters full of sado-masochistic drives toward suicide or murder, and that it is the imposition of all those cultural encrustations over this dark power of natural murderousness.

Rene Girard once spoke of the collapse of societies at the hands of violence:

When the religious framework of a society starts to totter, it is not exclusively or immediately the physical security of the society that is threatened; rather, the whole cultural foundation of the society is put in jeopardy. The institutions lose their vitality; the protective façade of the society gives way; social values are rapidly eroded, and the whole cultural structure seems on the verge of collapse.5

We know that Paddock was irreligious, maybe even atheistic, so that if anything it was the slow decay of our progressive Secular Age into decadence and decline rather than the religious worldview at stake in his thinking. The very cornerstone of democracy, Law and Justice and Freedom have in our own time begun to fragment and decay as the secular institutions of American democracy no longer offer the poor or middle-class a world worth living in, and our leaders have become unable to lead and provide us with a viable political and economic future on a planet that many believe is reaching both its limits in resources and natural capacity for a human civilization that has shown nothing but a propensity to violence against all past notions of the sacred. Our very denial of the sacred may in itself be the cause of the triggering effects of random acts of monstrous violence in the homeland, even as State violence is perpetrated in the incarceration of poor and black at home and the wars against all other nations for the remaining resources.

Maybe in the end the recent influx of mass murders in the homeland by young and old alike are wake up calls to the citizens that our world cannot go on as usual, that we are ourselves blind to our own violent ways and are producing in our daily lives the very things that are triggering the extreme revolt of madmen against us. In his novel The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s main character relates:

Rich dreams now which he was loathe to wake from. Things no longer known in the world. The cold drove him forth to mend the fire. Memory of her crossing the lawn toward the house in the early morning in a thin rose gown that clung to her breasts. He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the word and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not.6

It’s this sense of remembering and forgetting, of the mind’s dark tendency to alter the past in the mind, thereby altering reality or even annihilating it that brings us to that marked moment of acknowledgement that “each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins.” Reality is this movement between knowing and not-knowing, the oscillating rhythm of a brain caught in its own meshes, bound to a natural cycle of violence and memory for which it has neither reasons nor a definable answer – only more questions without end.

 


  1. Berardi, Franco “Bifo” (2015-02-03). Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide (Futures) (Kindle Locations 607-608). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
  2. Ballard, J.G; Sellars, Simon; O’Hara, Dan. Extreme Metaphors (Kindle Locations 708-712). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
  3. Zizek, Slavoj. Violence (BIG IDEAS//small books) (pp. 1-2). Picador. Kindle Edition.
  4. Colin Wilson; Donald Seaman. The Serial Killers: A Study in the Psychology of Violence (Kindle Locations 97-104). Random House. Kindle Edition.
  5. Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. (Page 49). W.W.Norton & Company (January 1, 1979)
  6. Cormac McCarthy. The Road (Kindle Locations 1233-1236). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

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