Skip to content

Stupid, Brutal World

The desensitization industry strikes again

“We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. navy vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen, ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’ And they are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is, for them, a brief flight . . . ”

—Brian Williams, MSNBC, reporting on a U.S. missile strike against a Syrian airbase (April 7, 2017).


Every generation has a kind of collective sensibility, particular ways of feeling the world that set it apart as a unique group stamped with the specific history they were brought up in. I often wonder what my generation’s sensibility is. Do we feel the world differently than past generations? Do we feel it at all? Because sometimes it feels like feeling has been replaced with something artificial and dumb. Sometimes I run my fingers across my skin and think, Wow, this fake stuff picks up sensations pretty well. Other times I pinch myself when I’m watching some report of horrific happenings and think, Wow, nothing.

Brian Williams is a moron. Let’s just acknowledge that from the start. But let’s also acknowledge that he’s not, by any means, a historically unique moron. With a straight face he could marvel at the aesthetically pleasing, “beautiful pictures” of deadly missiles taking flight. They were, in his eyes, spectacle first, carnage second.

The broad backlash to Williams’s “reporting” expressed overwhelming annoyance and disgust that he could be so detached from the deadly purpose of these weapons, so distanced from the terrifying fallout entailed in their deployment that he could talk about them as if they were purely artistic displays. The side implication here is that “art” is safe—an artificial representation, a second-order reality that can permissibly be mined for traditional aesthetic qualities like beauty because nothing real is at stake. But, again, Williams is not the first to see the bringing of death this way.

War, destruction, and violence have had a kind of spectacular draw since at least (but probably before) the heyday of the Roman Colosseum. In the Middle Ages, large crowds would gather to watch prisoners be tortured, beheaded, hanged, etc. A century or so ago wealthy and curious Americans would sit along ridges and hilltops at the southern border, lay out picnic blankets, and watch Mexican men kill each other while the revolution raged on. The spectacular qualities of the atomic bomb has not only captured the awe of every generation since WWII, but the Bomb’s abstracted might has become so thoroughly engrained in our culture that purveyors of everything from midcentury tableware to weapons-grade sandwiches blithely refer to their handiwork as “atomic.”  

So, in one sense, Williams was just carrying on a long and weird human tradition of seeing violence in a certain abstracted and giddy way. But there’s still something incredibly poignant in the image of a newscaster, whose traditional job is to present and narrate information about the world to viewers, presenting and narrating images of war in such bizarrely aestheticized terms. And there’s something no-less strange in the tertiary spectacle of that news figurehead coming under (virtual) fire from outraged viewers who, after seeing the same images, unleashed criticisms that appear on pages and tweets on my computer screen. If you’re the type of person who likes to say “meta,” you could probably call it that too.

Perhaps what makes this whole episode so peculiar is that it reveals to the fullest extent how abstracted most of our experiences of the world are. The broad American argument taking place wasn’t between people, like Williams, who were only seeing images of missiles on screens, and other people who saw the missiles firsthand. It was taking place among people who only experienced the event through images, and whose responses to each other were generally mediated through other images.

Williams was just carrying on a long and weird human tradition of seeing violence in a certain abstracted and giddy way.

That’s an obvious fact, but it raises a less obvious question: what exactly is separating the different camps? What makes you better than a moron like Brian Williams when you see an image of a Tomahawk cruise missile spitting and screaming through the night sky? If we saw this thing down to the bone, we’re essentially arguing over “better” ways of looking at images that are equally abstracted for the overwhelming majority of viewers. But better how? What makes them (seem) less abstracted for us? What, for that matter, makes any viewing more or less abstracted? “Images have been reproached for being a way of watching suffering at a distance,” Susan Sontag famously wrote, “as if there were some other way of watching. But watching up close—without the mediation of an image—is still just watching.” So, is it about knowledge—knowing the greater historical context of the event the image is portraying? Does Brian Williams, moron that he is, not know this context?

Or is it a question of feeling? Is the problem that someone like Williams lets the abstraction of the image cut him off from from feeling the human impact of our destructive instruments? Are the rest of us just “better” at feeling more of the pain of those who were injured or killed during the assault? Do we sense more of the fear of those who crouched in their rumbling houses nearby? Can we, to reference Sontag again, ever really imagine that horror?

Sometimes I think I’m doing a better job at this—at feeling. Other times I get a gross sense that what I’m doing is more like using purely visual clues to imagine what I would be feeling if the thing I’m looking at was “real.” I’m not saying the event itself didn’t happen, or that the pain it caused isn’t real. I’m saying that, for any other spectator who, like me, marveled at how stupid Brian Williams was being, there’s still some black disconnect between watching and experiencing that makes our feeling as suspect as Williams’s apparent non-feeling. It instills some kind of doubt about where the feelings are really coming from, even if, for the person feeling them, they’re as real and “genuine” as feelings can be. If we can’t feel the bare reality, the raw carnage of war and death over there, are we feeling a different brand of feeling, something stirred up by a completely different world of images of war and death that circulate here, among other images, each one impacting how we feel about the others?  

This question of feeling was, of course, what prompted the missile attack in the first place. Viewers across the West, Donald Trump included, watched footage of dozens of Syrian men, women, and children writhing and foaming at the mouth in the aftermath of a deadly sarin gas attack allegedly carried out by government forces. What followed was a mass display (more images on more screens) of U.S. pundits and officials expressing their disgust and sadness (an outpouring of feeling) and their conviction that something had to be done. And something was done.

Here that same doubt about people relating to images through feeling became impossible to ignore. Many, myself included, questioned the authenticity of the feelings Trump and his followers were expressing in response to the chemical attack on Syrian civilians. Not because the images weren’t horrific, but because similar images of carnage in Syria, including Bashar al-Assad’s even deadlier chemical attack on Ghouta in 2013, have been widely circulated and failed to prompt calls for military strikes or regime change from Trump and the GOP. (Quite the opposite, in fact.) But at a moment when the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency was under fire, when his approval ratings were at dramatic lows, and when his administration was succumbing to a long litany of policy failures, this profound moment of presidential feeling seemed highly suspect.

This episode suggests rather clearly that feeling is not a particularly reliable test of whether or how much a person has “overcome” the abstraction of images of death and human suffering. Nor is it a compelling gauge of whether or how much a person has “gotten closer” to the reality. Instead, it seems like more of a testament to the fact that the (political, ideological, etc.) contexts in which an image of suffering circulates here have a much greater impact on feeling than the actual suffering taking place, over there. And as if this point needed any additional belaboring in our reality-starved world, it turns out that Trump seemingly made his decision to change positions regarding Syria while  Rogue One played in the background.

But the point here isn’t to ridicule Trump, or Brian Williams for that matter. The point is to raise the question of how much any of us can experience an abstracted, violent world, mediated by millions of images, in ways that are any “realer” than others. When and if we feel the pain of others through viewing such images, are we feeling feelings that could be called “genuine”? If so, what exactly makes them more genuine than the feelings others, like Trump, also claim to be feeling? And, presuming that such ultramediated experiences can admit to their own distinctions, do they have as much power to compel our actions as those feelings that arise from other, presumably less mediated experiences? To put this another way, if we are moved to feel sadness while watching someone die in a movie (art), and we likewise feel sad when someone dies in front of us on a hospital bed (life), what makes one sadness more genuine than the other? And which type of sadness are we closer to feeling when we see images of death and suffering in some other part of the world?

No one really knows how to deal with the great, world-sized pain that crashes against the shores of our attention daily, hourly. There’s always too much. It bombards us, always giving us more than we can handle or respond to in any measured fashion—or at all, as the case may be. The pain of others has been swept up in the great cataract of media content that shapes the way we conceive of and experience the world itself.

In a saturated attention economy, ethical demands are chopped up into an unavoidably economic calculus of how much emotional bandwidth one can “spend.”

This is in no way intended to diminish the real, monstrous, unbearable pain felt by living beings around the world, but it still needs saying: pain, from the vantage point of the Western balcony, is treated as a commodity. It puts ethical demands on us (to bear witness, to not look away, to do something), but those demands are themselves enormously muffled and mediated—enough distance is put between them and us so that we come to understand that their ethical hold over us is less a matter of responsibility and more a matter of “taste.”

Our position is sufficiently abstracted from the lived reality of so much pain that human cries for help run through a twisted, consumeristic calculation. In the inevitably debased argot of such experience, even the most conscientious among us make radically privatized assessments of just what to respond to, what to “buy into” with their attention and interest, and what to simply leave on the shelf. In a saturated attention economy, where everything, no matter how horrific or unbearable, vies for our interest, ethical demands are chopped up into an unavoidably economic calculus of how much time, attention, and emotional bandwidth one can or is willing to “spend.”

Something, somewhere in us calculates whether and how we’ll respond to the pain of others. And as the market presents us with too much—always too much—the ethical demands entailed by human pain continue to be overshadowed by its “use value.” Gross moralizing from pseudo-prophets about whose pain must be addressed and how so often masks people’s self-serving, consumer-type calculations that are themselves grossly selective, contradictory, and held together by the cruel adhesives of prejudice, personal gain, heavy-handed ideological stubbornness, and so on.

Hence shock and horror from those who claim “something must be done” when “the beautiful babies” in Syria are suffering and dying, but only scorn and fear when the same babies try to flee to safer countries.  

Hence endless fear and disgust at the barbarous brutality of terrorist groups, but no word, no public outcry when a disabled prisoner in our own criminal justice system is allegedly boiled alive by his guards, for whom there will be no legal consequences.

Hence unbound sympathy for paying customers who are physically assaulted and dragged off commercial airline flights, but a deafening silence when it comes to the perpetual violence against employees and communities that commercial enterprises engineer in order to provide our consumer comforts.

Hence so many other stupid, gross, and obvious contradictions that exist when we become so privileged and abstracted from the pain of others that, even in our most noble, ethical moments, we go about addressing that pain, and take at least rhetorical responsibility for it, in ways that are already determined by the consumerization of life itself.

Consumerized empathy will always fail to account or atone for the violence wrought by the very political and economic forces that created it. It’s the thoroughly de-socialized counterpart to the brutal forms of domination that are late-capitalist business as usual.

 What is “senseless violence”? We generally go by the definition that interprets “sense” as conscious awareness or rationality, in the same way that something can “make sense” or that someone can have “good sense.” So, in this vein, violence that is senseless lacks sound purpose or meaning; it’s wasteful and pointless. If the term “senseless violence” is supposed to have some kind deeper ethical connotation, then the message isn’t exactly a powerful one. The only judgment being passed here is on whether or not violence has some kind of rational goal. By that definition, Assad’s decision to gas his own people, now and in the past, isn’t a senseless thing. He had his reasons. Horrifying as they were, he still had them.

Truly “senseless” episodes of violence are far outnumbered by violent episodes that operate within their own rhyme and reason.

The killer who admits he had no particular reason for ending lives—that’s what really seems to scare us. “Having a good reason” does, for better or worse, seriously affect how we think about murder. The reason may be terrifying, abhorrent, but having it still makes life more bearable for the rest of us because it leaves intact our cosmic faith that reason and logical intention make the world go round.

There’s no worthwhile indictment whatsoever in insisting that violence have some “sense” to it. Truly “senseless” episodes of violence are far outnumbered by violent episodes that operate within their own rhyme and reason. And reason itself is not some kind of equalizer—some violence is more justifiable than others.

Isn’t it far worse to behold endlessly unfolding violence whose senselessness points to a total lack of feeling? Isn’t this the greatest indictment of “reason” itself—that clinical property, celebrated by capitalists and politicians, that imagines itself wholly devoted to rational thinking and completely detached from the fanciful sway of emotion?

Thanks to this artificial division between our reasoning and feeling selves, many of the people who bemoan the ways in which our twenty-first-century media surround has fully “desensitized” us to the gruesome reality of violence fail to notice that the media sources and technological apparatuses doing the desensitizing are controlled by corporate mega-enterprises intimately tied to politics—both how it’s run and how we’re permitted to see it run. These things go together. The weird, abstract spectacle humans make of violence is nothing new. But one of (post-)modernity’s greatest “gifts” to the Western world was a capitalist-run, government-sponsored reality that promised to cultivate and industrialize the process by which violence is abstracted in the eyes of the spectator. Endless and endlessly mediated images allowed us to “experience” more of the world than ever before while becoming more anesthetized from its hurting. To become stupid—that’s the pinnacle of progress. Stupidus, in Latin, literally means to be “struck senseless.”

And what tremendous and monstrous things we’ve been able to accomplish. Our stupid, brutal world is a utopia of applied reason.