Violence (Virtual/Actual) and Visibility

Of course the week a new Grand Theft Auto game drops would be bookended with horrific violence. Between Monday’s Navy Yard Shooting and last night’s latest edition of “gang-related” violence in Chicago lies the biggest media event of all time. No doubt the game will be implicated somehow in both cases.

While I am tired of the relentless scapegoating of “violent media” when so many other factors are at work in these tragedies, I also despise the vitriolic/reactionary “white dude” defense that serves as the default response. Would the world be a better place if the GTA games didn’t exist? Possibly. Are they to blame for real world violence? No. The real problem is imagining a world where Grand Theft Auto wouldn’t need to exist.

The difference between this week’s two incidents of public gun violence illustrates the need for art and cultural production in the vein of the GTA franchise. The Navy Yard Shooting is the latest addition to the ever-expanding canon of Totally Preventable American Tragedies, alongside the likes of Sandy Hook and Columbine.  The shooting in Chicago’s South side will be forgotten within days as just another “gangland shooting”. At a certain level, there is no difference between the two: asshole(s) with guns used them to shoot people (clearly a secondary function of the weapon, you NRA FUCKS). On another level, the difference is clear: The Navy Yard shooting cannot be fully rationalized, while the Chicago shooting can be explained away by the opaque logic/blatant racism in the phrase “gang-related”. One kind is kept visible, the other dismissed and driven underground.

The world of Grand Theft Auto erases the distinction, amplifying the ugly undercurrents of modern American society until they are robbed of the rhetorical varnish that allows their disavowal. Violence is violence is violence, and for most of the citizens of Liberty City, it’s all par for course. Grand Theft Auto ingests the garbage of our world and vomits it into our faces in digital form. The real joke is that we come to enjoy participating in the (simulated) worst aspects of our world. We collectively love having our noses rubbed in our own shit.

And, maybe, that’s where the value is. By making us active participants in the (ir)rational violence reminiscent of the real world in a consequence-free environment, maybe we can come to realize how deeply absurd it all is. None of this needs to happen, and yet it does.

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The Degradation of Ethics

Larval Subjects .

alienAs I teach Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (along with the thought of Epicurus and Epictetus), I’m struck by just how much our ethical discourse has changed.  This is attested to by what is absent in these discourses as much as by what is present.  What’s so striking in Aristotle, is that the question of ethics is one of eudaimonia, happiness, or human flourishing.  How ought we live our lives in order to attain human flourishing or happiness, he asks?  Similarly, in the case of the Epicureans and stoics, the question is one of ataraxia, peace of mind, or tranquility.   For these thinkers there is a clear telos to ethical thought and action:  happiness and tranquility.

Such questions seem thoroughly absent from the ethical thought of the last couple hundred years.  Ethics instead seems to become a question of how to determine the rules that should govern behavior and…

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Default Setting

Coming of intellectual age in this particular time, it’s abundantly clear that white-dude insecurity in the academy is at an all time high. This means it’s still relatively low, but the increased visibility of non-white-masculine perspectives is cause for celebration and pause. The white-dude-academic-complex’s cracks and shortcomings have never been more apparent.

Being a white male myself, another permanent user of the default setting, the awareness of marginalized voices has caused me no shortage of anxiety. Partially out of a culturally- inherited feeling of entitlement (that I do my best to quell), and also out of the special anxiety that comes from either using my privilege, or simply getting out of the way. These are questions that will no doubt plague me for the rest of my life and career. And that’s how it probably should be.

The point is, issues of race and identity are never going to be simple or painless, as much as we white people want to claim that we live in a post-racial society. As Scott Schomburg discusses in his post on The Other Journal, these issues are not problems to be solved, but crises to be faced. Schomburg’s piece dissects the “post-racial” white identity by way of an analysis of Dr. Schultz in Tarantino’s Django Unchained through the thought of the African-American writer James Baldwin. What Schomburg finds is not a white progressive liberator, but just another, if more benevolent, slave master. That is to say, Schultz’s identity is never thrown into question. This leads to the disturbing conclusion that domination and persecution are endemic to white identity.

This is something I’ve slowly come to terms with over the past few years, and something that causes so many of my friends and peers to flip out and get defensive. When a black public figure makes a statement about racism, the default reaction of the default people is invariably “But I’m not racist!”. There is never a realization that the designation is not completely up to us; it is also dependent on the perceptions of the other.  We get to be solipsistic because we’ve never been subject to anything else, and in turn we subject others to the same standards.

There’s no solving this. There are no easy answers. But maybe we can realize there’s no inherent virtue in the default setting.