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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, December 15, 2012

WAS WERTHAM EVER RIGHT?

As this is a blog devoted to the critique of popular fiction, I don't often discuss current events or politics.  The notion that the discouse of fiction is a dog wagged by the tail of political discourse remains as much anathema to me now as when I refuted Frederic Jameson's work on that subject in 2009.

Still, like most persons I'm revulsed by the news of the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school December 15, 2012, less than six months following the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

By chance this week I reprinted some of my attacks on the two earliest anti-comics crusaders, Gershon Legman and Frederic Wertham.  Both men were firmly convinced that violent entertainment, including but certainly not limited to comic books, could inculcate a "monkey see-- monkey do" influence upon those who were easily influenced, particularly young patrons of such entertainment.  As anyone able to read knows, the debate did not end with Legman and Wertham, but has multiplied into a bewildering array of studies, op-ed pieces, and rhetorical defenses of artistic freedom.

One day after the Newtown shooting, little information has been released on the man accused of the crime.  Earliest information suggests that the accused, 20-year-old Adam Lanza-- who apparently shot himself to death after killing 27 victims, mostly schoolchildren-- had some sort of grievance involving his parents.

At present this would not seem to be a "monkey do" type of crime, in contrast to the Aurora shooting last July, where mass gunman James Holmes was taken alive and *may* have claimed that he was imitating the Joker from the BATMAN franchise.   But even without a link to popular entertainment in the Lanza case, it's easy to argue that such horrendous crimes take inspiration from a culture that enshrines violence, selling visceral entertainment to kiddies in the name of the almighty dollar.

Such transgressive entertainments only have an appeal, whether in capitalistic societies or any other kind, because most if not all human beings nurture resentments for wrongs real or imagined throughout their lives.  Legman and Wertham feared that most patrons of violent entertainment would have their societal inhibitions broken down by media able to speak to those persons' darkest wish-dreams.

To answer my titular question, while Wertham and his fellow-travelers were not right in any general sense, it's certainly possible for isolated individuals to take inspiration from any number of things that break down societal inhibitions-- though with the caveat that almost anything can trigger such a breakdown, from the Bible to cheerleader magazines

That said, the violent fantasies entertained by Lanza and James Holmes seem to go beyond the bounds of getting even with the teacher who flunked you, the cop who gave you a ticket, etc.  Do the persons committing such crimes-- sometimes with a great deal of forethought and planning-- view themselves as gutsy barbarians avenging themselves on the whole of society, as represented by the occupants of a movie theater-- or by little children who haven't even become a part of society as yet?

That's the best stab I can make toward understanding what moves this apparent rash of mass shootings.  Vengeance fantasies would seem to spring from a fear of being marginalized or mistreated.  The majority of persons who consume fantasies of violence or revenge-- and I include myself as having identified with the many mad, mistreated avengers of fiction-- can keep a sufficient mental distance as to avoid identifying fantasy with reality.   Individuals who take pleasure in mass murder, whether after the fashion of the serial killers or of the mass shooters, would appear to have lost the ability to prioritize real life above their own fantasies.  As contemptible and cowardly as the killers seem to the majority of human beings, they apparently believe themselves heroes, or at least anti-heroes like "Joker" Holmes.

I continue to believe, for whatever it's worth, that the pleasures of fictional violence don't deeply influence that majority, whether it's to commit crimes or to talk back to a nasty cop.  All such pleasures have their deepest roots in that aspect of human ressentiment that seem part and parcel of the human condition, one perfectly captured in this aphorism by Nietzsche:

"Nothing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of resentment.”




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