The current issue of reducing gun violence in America has cleaved into two basic premises: that there is a problem of violence, and that there is a problem of technology. Both of these are rich areas of discussion, but in this post I’m going to focus on the role of violence in America.
One of the strangest parts of the Sandy Hook massacre was its growing familiarity. Details were new and horrific – reading the names of 20 tiny children brought President Obama close to tears, and many who saw his speech besides – but the lone gunman killing helpless targets en masse, not for specific reasons but rather out of spite, rage, entitlement or power seems to be a cultural pattern and already stories have followed that confirm that. Yet in looking to history it’s hard to think anything has changed about humanity—the opening of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, for instance, famously describes a man being torn apart by horses. The notion that violence could be specific to the modern American landscape seems laughable to anyone who’s dipped into the archives at all.
So can the enormous disparity of gun deaths be attributed directly to which deadly technologies are available to the consumer in the United States? Before going into this question too far, we have to consider why there would be such an interest in those technologies among a population to begin with, and while there are a number of potential arguments, one of them is certainly aesthetic. This returns us to the question of the American relationship to violence. The issue here is that danger, excitement, risk and power are symbolized by weapons, and associated with an ideal of freedom. In other words, violence of a certain kind is associated with the aesthetic of freedom.
Quentin Tarantino got a little upset the other day at being asked whether he thought the violence in his movies was socially destructive. His reaction is understandable given how often he has been asked to explain himself, although it’s too bad he wasn’t willing to have the discussion about Django Unchained in particular, as the movie is an interesting reflection on the American psyche. The line that sums it up is delivered during a tense moment: “He’s just not as used to Americans,” Django says, referring to his German friend’s discomfort at a brutal scene. Given that Tarantino just made a movie that was explicit about German brutality it’s clear this is not a simple claim that America is full of worse people than other parts of the world. But there is something worth thinking about in this quote.
In general, Tarantino’s movies depict a hero within a corrupt world of some kind, and shows the complications of belonging to a moral subculture (accentuated by connecting the characters to the broad popular culture otherwise—like jewel thieves talking about Madonna or hit men discussing burgers). In Django Unchained, the corrupt world is America. Actually, it’s a hybrid of two Americas, the antebellum South and the Wild West—and each of these plays an important role in the larger concept of America.
Both the South and the Wild West have been romanticized in American cultural history. Looked at from the perspective of the powerless, there is very little to find charming about the South, and in Django Unchained Tarantino puts on display torture methods and practices commonly brushed under the carpet in other depictions—things like neck irons, hot boxes, angry dogs and brandings.
The constant, oppressive violence of the South is systemic, and it can be seen as based on the acceptance of the economy that perpetuates it. Human usury is woven into the market and so into the culture, and post-hoc defenses are easily created and believed by those in charge. Slaves have the choice of seeking a relative level of comfort within the system or risking torture and death, and are labeled by their oppressors as naturally incapable of self-determination when they choose the more prudent if less admirable route. The system does not provide a method by which to change the system.
The Wild West, however, is a storybook form of America—the individual cowboy who can bring about justice on his own. The violence that occurs here is understood differently, as it is not the result of an oppressive system, but of an individual taking a stand. Tarantino divides the two types of violence clearly in the way that they’re presented, and there is a gloss of fantasy over the actions of the cowboys. Nonetheless the complications peek through.
There is a scene in Django Unchained when the surviving plantation owners are returning from a funeral, thinking Django is on his way to a punitive fate, and we see them entering in their finery to a home whose walls are literally stained with blood. It’s humorous somehow, and visually evocative, but it is also deeply tragic and metaphorically apt. Even if we root for Django to bring chaos to the lives of hateful masters, the impotence of this devastation is ultimately evident. The violence of the Wild West is optimistic whereas the Southern violence is repressive, and Tarantino’s presentation of a cowboy as a counterpoint to a slave-master is perfectly intuitive. But revenge is not as simple as some (perhaps even the director, at times) imagine it to be: although the violence is cathartic and exciting, it still brings baggage with it, and the emotional weight of causing death and destruction doesn’t result in a clean slate. The Wild West violence may be a positive when compared with the authoritarian, systemic violence it is reacting to, but in a larger sense it is hardly more than a further part of the structure, the other and more risky option initially provided (quietly enforce a corrupted system, or become a corrupted individual in response to it.) The movie is not just a revenge fantasy; it’s an epic tragedy.
Freedom in its deeper sense comes with its own burdens. Sartre addressed this on an individual level through the idea of personal anguish, claiming that once you truly understand what it is to make a choice, you recognize the weight you bear. Victor Frankl put it in broader social terms, and suggested that a “Statue of Responsibility” should be built on America’s West Coast to balance the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. In Man’s Search for Meaning he wrote “Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibility. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibility.”