Violence is the manifestation of the absurd. If one watches a Three Stooges short, Five Corners, and A Clockwork Orange in succession, one could be forgiven for thinking that violence is a amoral comedic form. Furthermore, the “realistic” violence of military epic films is easily parodied by action films, cartoons and creature features because the violence of the original is absurd. The sentiment that is drawn out of us is often changed by the context of the violence we are exposed to, but this effect is a product of our socialization; violence is still quintessentially absurd.
Absurdity may be defined as the disruption of human integrity, order, and reason. The Amazon jungle is not integrally absurd, but may appear so to a New York socialite dropped out of a plane. Violence is absurd because it breaks the order of the body and the emotional and cognitive integrity of the victim, and it is absurd because it breaks the civic order, the rudimentary agreements of coexistence. Furthermore, the violence enacted by the individual is felt by the society, and vice versa. By way of analogy, when a father physically abuses a child, the entire order of the family is disrupted.
When a society begins to feel threatened by films, books, cartoons, and video games which reflect the absurdity and mindlessness inherent in violence, it is because the society has invested much into legitimizing and moralizing violence. Put another way, Grand Theft Auto makes the hearts of American politicians quake because it may be seen as a scathing parody of America’s domestic and foreign policies which rely so mightily on the mystification of violence.
There are many political and cultural factions which attempt to organize and legitimize violence. Institutions as diverse as the state, family, and religion have molded violence into a legitimate expression of a reasoned and moral public or individual. Through the kaleidoscope of various ideologies, violence can be alternately heroic, patriotic, passionate, just, and even moral.
At this point, proponents of violence will often trot out the epitome of righteous and responsible violence, World War II, arguing that violence is required to stopper greater violence. In response to this I would first say that World War II has been white-washed with moral simplicity; broad historic strokes have been used to cover individual acts of violence in an effort to dehumanize some of the victims of violence.
Secondly, we should recognize that war attempts to preserve one order through the disruption of another’s order. War is a contest in which the goal is to be the one who gets to define and sanction the absurdity or murder, rape, and the mutilations of body and spirit which proceeded. The violence on either side is made no less absurd, regardless of the virtues later applied. The order that war aspires to preserve is made absurd and irrational by the act; enlightenment is not the profit of bombs.
This is important to understand because domestic and urban violence, though enacted by an individual, is often perpetrated on the mistaken belief that violence can beget meaning and order: a woman can be taught by abuse, a man can rectify a slight by murder, one can establish one’s virtue by fighting. But destroying someone else’s order, physical or emotional, does nothing to improve the order of the perpetrator of the violence. As with war, an individual may create a narrative of what the violence accomplished, but the absurdity of their narrative is obvious to outside observers.
When a society attempts to use violence to legitimize, moralize, or organize itself (or its image), it becomes an absurd society: an entropic, disordered collection of contradictions and postures which, unchecked, will cause the society to collapse into fascism or revert to tribalism. Cartoons, slapstick, and splatter-films don’t, as a matter of course, legitimize violence; instead, they are often an expression of dread, a reflection of the absurdity observed in society. We must remember that the parody of violence in games, movies, and cartoons do not enact violence. These media do, however, provide us with an important touchstone for discussing the sanctioned absurdity of a violent society.
This is not to say that violent films and games are not sometimes pornographic or exploitative. Neither do I mean to engage in arguments of what constitutes self defense and the sometimes necessity of intervention. Rather, I mean to say that violence is always an absurdity to the victim of the violence; the order we create to explain the violence is also, necessarily, tainted with the absurd.