Horror Feminism

So, the other say, I made the claim that American Horror Story is a feminist series. Let me explain, based on the two seasons we have so far. As a disclaimer, I should add that AHS is one of my favorite shows on TV right now and I am a big fan of the concept of keeping most of the same cast from one season to the other while completely changing the narrative so that each season is a self-contained mini-series.

When I started watching AHS, I was instantly reminded of the original title of the Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series: Men Who Hate Women.  Both seasons have that theme, along with the theme of women who fight back, not always appropriately, but that is patriarchal distortion for you.

The first season revolves around men’s transgressions (mostly sexual through infidelities) and how women related to them cope with that. Almost every woman in that season was subject to masculine degradation and reacted – not always well, and not always against the right target – within the constraints of a patriarchal system. See how Ben Harmon pretty much decides on his own to transplant his family across the country after his infidelity and constantly hectors his wife about trying to get over his transgression.

This theme of men who get to hate on women with abandon because the patriarchal system makes it easy and brings to bear no consequences for them is even clearer in the second season, whether it is former Nazi doctor Arden, Father Timothy Howard, or serial killer Dr Oliver Thredson. In response, women try to fight back with the weapons they have or make for themselves, as do Sister Jude and journalist Lana Winters. Again, sometimes they strike wrong (against each other as the patriarchal context distorts relationships and prevents solidarity), but they do strike. And not unlike Lisbeth Salander, they do end up punishing the men who hate women.

I do hope this theme continues in the upcoming seasons.

Zero Dark Thirty

I bet you were all waiting for me to weigh in, right? As a disclaimer, I loved The Hurt Locker. I loved its intensity and the fact that its main character was not entirely a “good guy”. He was reckless, unable to really function as one with his team even though it is an essential part of the job and of survival. And I loved the fact that it showed the difficulties of return.

So, ZDT. No two ways about it. It is pro-torture and it is torture porn, IMNSHO. And it is intellectually dishonest. The first thing you see in the film is the original claim that it is based on first-hand accounts. It is not fiction. It is a fictionalized documentary. At least, that is the claim being made. What you are about to see is what happened. And we all know that claim turned out to be inaccurate. That’s for the intellectually dishonest part.

Now, the torture thing. The first part of the film is torture porn. It is. The point of these first 20 or so minutes is not to horrify the audience to torture (if you need to be horrified by torture, your moral compass needs serious adjustment). It is to establish it as the source of everything that follows, the whole investigation. And throughout the film, one can see Maya intently watching tapes of other interrogations, obviously involving torture as well.

Later, Maya and her fellow agents watch Obama on television claiming that the US does not use torture and they roll their eyes (I wondered why this was not shown when Bush made a similar claim on television as well a few years earlier). And once the detainee program gets disbanded, several CIA agents keep whining about having lost their most useful source of information.

This film lies about the uses of torture (proved to be useless in terms of truthful information), while claiming to be retelling the actual truth based on first hand accounts. It places torture as the providing the initial lead that created the thread that Maya doggedly follows, substantiated along the way through more torture (alternating with more terrorist attacks, that is the rhythm of the film minus the first and last twenty minutes).

In this sense, there is no doubt either that the movie is very much pro-CIA. In the film, it is the CIA against hapless and hypocritical politicians, against changing public opinion, etc. They do their best, if only they were allowed to use what they know works: torture. Frankly, I don’t think there is any ambiguity or complexity in Bigelow’s directorial choices here.

The gender aspect – the heroism of Maya, as played by Jessica Chastain – but I’m with Peter Bradshaw on that one:

“This really is overdog cinema, whose machismo is not tempered by Chastain’s faintly preposterous, flame-haired character showing up at various locations as if for a Vogue cover shoot, at one point with some cool aviator shades.”

As with her other films, Bigelow is a very skilled director and the sequence of the assault on OBL’s compound is indeed gripping even as we all already knew some of the details, and of course, how it ended. I don’t think anyone can help have their heart pump fast during the whole sequence. The whole film, itself, is goes at a good pace and I was never tempted to look at my watch. As I said, Bigelow knows how to make movies.

One can also see a recurring theme of her on ZDT: the attraction / repulsion relationship between the main character and his/her nemesis, whether it’s OBL, or the addiction to the rush of explosions in The Hurt Locker, or the attraction to the criminal in Point Break and Blue Steel. But in this case, the film, I think, deliberately, makes the viewers complicit in its endorsement of torture.

So, it’s a well-made film, directed by a very apt filmmaker, but then, so was Leni Riefenstahl.

The Only Argument Guns Advocates Should Have The Guts to Make (But Won’t)

Todd Krohn makes it for them:

“It’s a cultural thing, as they say. We live in a society that launches “wars” on everything from drugs and crime, to cancer and fat. If it’s an inanimate object, we’re going to war with it. We have the most militarized law enforcement in the world, and more people locked up per capita than any country on the planet. We cover our more base and primal urges under the Constitution, hiding there when someone takes the “freedom” to be wack too far. Do you have your 1st and 2nd amendment rights to own violent video games and as many guns as you can possibly buy? Damn right you do. Soak yourself in blood, real or imagined, 24/7.

But please, stop the weeping and faux sympathy and crocodile tears when the next round of school kids, one of your family members, or anyone for that matter (almost 700 people have been shot to death in the U.S. since Newtown; new research shows“Stand Yer Ground” laws have added 500-700 homicides every year), gets whacked.

That’s your “price of freedom” cultural argument, tough guy.”

That is the only “pro-gun” argument that actually fits the data and I wish gun advocates would make and defend that argument but they never do. Instead, they keep pursuing red herring to try to erase data that don’t fit their ideological view, in addition to actively suppressing research in the first place.

I wish they made and defended these arguments as well:

  • A gun arsenal of different types is a big part of American masculinity, which is culturally deeply associated with violence.
  • A gun makes injuring and killing easier than other weapons (knives, etc.).
  • A gun annihilates the potential strength and courage differential between people.
  • A gun reassures white men of their status in a country where their numbers are decreasing and non-white people numbers are increasing, and that is a source of anxiety.

Those are the only data-supported arguments. Have the guts to make them.

Living The Guns Dream

There are places in the world where there are lots of guns, and not just by bad guys. So what does a country awash with guns look like? According to the pro-gun hypothesis, it should be a crime-free heaven, right? Let’s see:

“I recently visited some Latin American countries that mesh with the N.R.A.’s vision of the promised land, where guards with guns grace every office lobby, storefront, A.T.M., restaurant and gas station. It has not made those countries safer or saner.

Despite the ubiquitous presence of “good guys” with guns, countries like Guatemala,Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia and Venezuela have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

“A society that is relying on guys with guns to stop violence is a sign of a society where institutions have broken down,” said Rebecca Peters, former director of the International Action Network on Small Arms. “It’s shocking to hear anyone in the United States considering a solution that would make it seem more like Colombia.”

As guns proliferate, legally and illegally, innocent people often seem more terrorized than protected.”

There is a chicken-and-egg issue though: are more guns the product of institutional breakdown and failed state or do more guns trigger institutional breakdown and failed state? After all, if a lot of private people (whether gangs or private security personnel) have guns, one can see how that could have a destabilizing effect rather than a response to destabilization.

“Scientific studies have consistently found that places with more guns have more violent deaths, both homicides and suicides. Women and children are more likely to die if there’s a gun in the house. The more guns in an area, the higher the local suicide rates. “Generally, if you live in a civilized society, more guns mean more death,” said David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. “There is no evidence that having more guns reduces crime. None at all.”

After a gruesome mass murder in 1996 provoked public outrage, Australia enacted stricter gun laws, including a 28-day waiting period before purchase and a ban on semiautomatic weapons. Before then, Australia had averaged one mass shooting a year. Since, rates of both homicide and suicide have dropped 50 percent, and there have been no mass killings, said Ms. Peters, who lobbied for the legislation.”

And these facts will not make one bit of difference.

Neither will those:

“Guatemala, with approximately 20,000 police officers, has 41,000 registered private security guards and an estimated  80,000 who are working without authorization. “To put people with guns who are not accountable or trained in places where there are lots of innocent people is just dangerous,” Ms. Peters said, noting that lethal force is used to deter minor crimes like shoplifting.

Indeed, even as some Americans propose expanding our gun culture into elementary schools, some Latin American cities are trying to rein in theirs. Bogotá’s new mayor, Gustavo Petro, has forbidden residents to carry weapons on streets, in cars or in any public space since last February, and the murder rate has dropped 50 percent to a 27-year low. He said, “Guns are not a defense, they are a risk.”

William Godnick, coordinator of the Public Security Program at the United Nations Regional Center for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean, said that United Nations studies in Central America showed that people who used a gun to defend against an armed assault were far more likely to be injured or killed than if they had no weapon.”

Still The Gun Thing…

A few publications (here and here, for instance) decided to do some raw data collection (which would need to be refined and correlated with other variables to be truly useful). Slate, especially, has produced a simple interactive graphic regarding gun deaths since Newtown, which has received much visibility:

Less spectacular but as important is this article on the NRA’s (successful) lobbying efforts to suppress research on this topic:

“One aspect of the political effort to turn the US into a gun culture was laid bare just before Christmas inan editorial published in JAMA by Arthur Kellerman and Fred Rivara, two public health physicians. They present a shocking and well-described perspective not available elsewhere — a story of how politics, funding, and sociopathic profiteering have combined to thwart public health research, ultimately creating a smoother path for corporate interests that exploit citizens and their lives just as cigarette manufacturers did a few decades ago — minimizing risks and dismissing deaths in order to make their money. By tying their business to freedom, gun manufacturers and their shills have been able to make incredible inroads into our political system. How much so? They’ve been able to stifle research into gun violence for more than 15 years.

Kellerman and Rivara write that in 1996, pro-gun members of Congress succeeded in eliminating the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As if defunding this center weren’t enough, the following language was added to the appropriations bill:

. . . none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.

So, the CDC lost a center devoted to injury prevention, and lost the ability to shift funds to study gun violence. Later, when other agencies tried to fund high-quality research on injury prevention, which naturally touches on firearms, Congress extended the restrictive language, ultimately applying it to all the Department of Health and Human Services agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH).”

Go read the whole thing. But this tells you everything you need to know about an organization that refuses discussion of an issue, will have swarms of trolls derailing discussion threads all over the Internet, and using its lobbying power to get rid of research (which means, they know what the research might show, because the data otherwise available points to a clear direction). This is bully behavior, unsurprisingly.

Book Review – Haiti: The Aftershocks Of History

Laurent Dubois‘s excellent Haiti: The Aftershocks of History is a must-read for anyone interested in the social construction of race and race formation, as well as colonialism and its legacy. The book provides the longue durée context for the current situation of Haiti, especially when the devastating earthquake a few years back, and the current damages inflicted by hurricane Sandy.

If we were to consider Haiti a failed state, then it would be a failed state by design. From reading Dubois’s book, one would be tempted to think that no one ever wanted Haiti to succeed on its own terms ever since the slaves rebelled against their French colonizers.

The book is overall a highly readable and very well-written political history of the country from the end of French colony of Saint-Domingue (as it was called under French rule), dominated by a slavery-based plantation economy (especially sugar canes) to the present although the Duvalier II era to now is a bit short.

Indeed, Dubois describes the 19th century in great details, so, by the time the reader gets to the rise of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, it feels like the book is rushing to the end and one is left with many questions regarding the contemporary period (especially the second ousting of Aristide and beyond).

There is also no doubt that Dubois loves Haiti and roots for its success. As a result, you will find a lot of Amazon reviews decrying the lack of objectivity of the book. That did not bothered me all that much because Dubois is not shy about exposing the structural factors that have resulted in so much political instability in Haiti (the urban / rural divide as well as the dominance of a light-skinned, mulatto elite versus their darker skinned compatriots). Dubois actually presents these lines of division as central to Haiti’s persistent problems. Similarly, one can find at the very beginning of the book another major factor in Haiti’s political instability (Kindle locations):

“Haiti is often described as a “failed state.” In fact, though, Haiti’s state has been quite successful at doing what it was set up to do: preserve power for a small group. The constitutional structures established in the nineteenth century made it very difficult to vote the country’s leaders out of office, leaving insurrection as the only means of effecting political change.” (Loc. 126)

That lock on power and the lack of proper constitutional and institutional mechanisms for political alternatives are at the heart of the multiple rebellions and coups. These are the internal factors. There is no doubt that the French never forgave their former slave colony for rebelling and forcing them out. Indeed, the financial compensation that France demanded (and obtained) from Haiti (in order to reimburse plantation owners for the loss of their property… land and slaves… what is the French word for chutzpah? Quel culot, as we French would say) strangled the country financially so badly that it had to go into debt very quickly. This indebtedness was used, a century later, by the US to invade the country and rule it by force for 20 years. In both case, this was brutal expropriation either of direct monies for France, or exploitation of land and labor for the US.

In both cases, there was a clash of economic models. From the independence on, there has been, in Haiti, a strong rejection of the plantation model, so associated with slavery. So, the rural population has tried to develop alternative modes of agricultural production based on subsistence agriculture (rather than cash crops for export) in small cooperatives. These competing models have been a source of conflicts between the urban / port elites and foreign investors and the rural population. In a way, Haiti was constantly pressure to agree to structural adjustment programs before those even existed, especially from the US. And, big surprise, these neoliberal measures avant la lettre worked no better there than they did anywhere in the late 20th century. They explain the persistent stratification between the cities and the rural areas, forcing a lot of peasants to leave the land and flock to city slums.

“As more and more U.S. agricultural companies entered Haiti, they deprived peasants of their land. The result was that, for the first time in its history, large numbers of Haitians left the country, looking for work in nearby Caribbean islands and beyond. Others moved to the capital of Port-au-Prince, which the United States had made into Haiti’s center of trade at the expense of the regional ports. In the decades that followed, the capital’s growth continued, uncontrolled and ultimately disastrous, while the countryside suffered increasing immiseration.” (Loc. 157)

These unpopular policies were supported by the US, who also (along with France), supported the various authoritarian governments, especially the dreadful Duvalier dictatorship (father and son) in all their atrocities at the same time that the US denied Haitian refugees political asylum.

The end result?

“Ever since popular president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was violently overthrown in 2004, Haiti has been policed largely by foreign troops under U.N. command. Haiti’s proud independence has been eroded, too, by the thousands of foreign organizations that have flocked to the country over the years with projects for improvement and reform. For all their work, though, hunger, poverty, and disease still stalk much of the population. In the cities, the last decades have seen an increase in violent crime, including drug trafficking and kidnapping, while the situation in rural Haiti, where the majority of the population still lives, is increasingly desperate. The soil is severely depleted; generations of intensive agriculture and deforestation have taken their toll. As the population has grown and parcels of land have been divided into smaller and smaller bits, the social and agricultural strategies that worked well for Haitian peasants into the early decades of the twentieth century have become increasingly unsustainable. At the same time, the solutions prescribed by foreign powers and international organizations have largely turned out to be ineffective, or worse.” (Loc. 172)

But the theme that Dubois delineates throughout the book, and the source of his obvious affection for Haitians and hopes for Haiti are as such:

““Haiti disturbs,” sociologist Jean Casimir likes to say. It disturbs, of course, because of its poverty and its suffering. But it also disturbs because, throughout its history, Haiti’s people have repeatedly turned away from social and political institutions designed to achieve profits and economic growth, choosing to maintain their autonomy instead. The Haitian population has been told for two centuries, as it is told today, that it must change, adapt, modernize. No doubt some change is needed; but what has largely been offered to Haiti’s population in the guise of foreign advice is simply a precarious place at the bottom of the global order.

Haitians have consistently refused such offers.” (Loc. 192)

And, of course, White racism has been the source of much violence inflicted upon Haitians, first through the slavery system and later during the US occupation. The first country of free blacks has been depicted by the Western press and seen by Western political classes as a bunch of cannibalistic, voodoo-practicing savages. For instance, Dubois uses the example Marcus Rainsford’s drawings:

The one on the left, much reproduced, portrays the hanging of white officers by Maroons, the one on the right, much omitted, depicts a French officer throwing Haitians overboard to drown them, as if brutality was one-sided.

Similarly, racism was at the root of the constant religious persecution, especially against voodoo, seen as both superstitious paganism as well as somewhat scary.

As I was reading the book, especially regarding the repression of voodoo, and especially the figure of Baron Samedi, I was reminded of the persistence of stereotype and underlying racism that one can find in popular culture. Take a look at these two representations of Baron Samedi:

And remember this guy?

Yup, that’s right. When depicting Doctor Facilier, Disney designers tapped into the stereotypes of Haitian culture and voodoo for their main villain:

So, if you want to explore the roots of all this, then, Dubois’s book is what you want. It is full of rich details about 19th and early 20th century Haiti. As I mentioned before, it rushes a bit to the end, but Dubois seeks to highlight the origins of our views of Haiti, its persistent challenges, poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and natural disaster and its constant harassment by outsiders, from France, to the US, to the UN and a multiplicity of NGOs. It is also a great expose of cultural and structural racism and its consequences, as well as the fight for a non-market driven model of development.

Absolute must-read.

Patriarchal Violence Never Takes A Break

Patriarchal cultures (and that’s pretty much all of them) have all sorts of creative ways of enforcing their norms on those who defy and resist them. They never run out of violent and publicly degrading way of punishing women and girls, especially, for their deviance, enlisting all social institutions to do their work of social control and sanctioning.

Item 1 – schools:

“A teacher in southern Egypt punished two 12-year-old schoolgirls for not wearing the Muslim headscarf by cutting their hair, the father of one girl said on Wednesday.

The governor of Luxor province – where the incident occurred – called the teacher’s actions shameful and said she had been transferred to another school. But rights groups say that some Islamic conservatives have been emboldened by the success of groups like Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafi trend in parliamentary and presidential elections and have been increasingly brazen about forcing their standards on other Egyptians.

The incident follows a surge in legal cases against Egyptians, mostly Christians, who allegedly showed contempt for religion.

It also comes amid a fierce debate over how the role of religion will be defined in the country’s new constitution. The preponderance of Islamists on the panel drafting the document has alarmed liberals and religious minorities.

In the village of Qurna in Luxor province, 300 miles south of Cairo, father Berbesh Khairi el-Rawi said the teacher forced the two girls to stand with their hands above their heads for two hours and then cut their hair in their school.”

Item 2 – families:

“The scourge of acid and “honour” has claimed another victim in Pakistan where a teenage girl was reportedly murdered by her parents after she was apparently seen talking to a young man.

Police in Pakistan-administered Kashmir said they had arrested Mohammad Zafar and his wife after they allegedly confessed to dousing their 15-year-old daughter, Anvu Sha, with acid. Police were alerted by the teenager’s married, elder sister who demanded they investigate.

The precise details of the teenager’s purported offence are unclear. Some reports said her father saw her talking to a young man, while others said he merely saw her looking at two young men who drove past their house on a motorbike.

Either way, police claim that at some point on Monday Mr Zafar became enraged with his daughter, attacked her in the house and then poured acid on her with the assistance of his wife. They did not take the young girl to hospital until the following day, when she died of her injuries. “Zafar beat her up with the help of his wife,” police officer Tahir Ayub told Agence France Presse, adding that the couple had confessed to their actions. “She was badly burnt but they did not take her to hospital until the next morning, and she died on Wednesday.”

Acid attacks, especially those  relating to cases of so-called honour, are commonplace in Pakistan and elsewhere in South Asia and campaigners have struggled for years for the authorities to tackle the issue more forcefully.”

A.L.F. – The Movie

For some miraculous reason, the town where I live has an independent film festival where VeganProf and I got to see A.L.F. tonight. It’s a French film that will be out in France in November and later, hopefully, in the US. As the title indicates, it is about the Animal Liberation Front.

It is not a documentary, though. the basic plot follows the police custody and initial interrogation of Franck, the leader of an ALF group and then backtracks to Franck and his group as they get ready to raid a dog laboratory. The movie then goes back and forth between Franck in custody, following the members of the group in the 24 hours before the raid, as well as Sarah’s therapy sessions as she awaits Franck’s release after serving a 10-month prison sentence for armed robbery. So, the timeline is disjointed but not at all hard to follow.

In between, we get glimpses of animal torture and mistreatment in factory farms or labs, but not a whole lot, just enough to get a sense of the horror. The director has smartly placed these images so they relate to members of the group and how they got to the point of raiding the lab. It was a risky choice though: too many of such images would have overwhelmed the narrative and taken over the film. The choice of soundtrack for these images makes them all the more powerful not as voyeuristic, but as explanatory as to the members’ states of mind as they get themselves ready for the raid.

A.L.F. reminded me of Amores Perros (another movie about dogs, incidentally) not just in the structure of disjointed timeline and narrative but also in the ways in which each flashback gives the audience opportunities to see all the main characters more in depth as it humanizes them, including the cops who interrogate Franck. As much as the film definitely has a point of view and sides with the activists, it does not take cheap shots at the cops, which would have been easy. Everyone get a humane treatment, not ironically.

Similarly, the director made smart choices as to what to show and what was not necessary to show: the raid and Franck’s arrest. From the first scene of the film, we know the raid was a success but that Franck got arrested. That is established and showing it in details would have been redundant.

Anyone studying the sociology of social movements would find this film interesting as it shows the experience of becoming involved in a movement seen as radical as an alienating one. It seems all the members of Franck’s group end up having to detach themselves from close and intimate relationships as they get deeper into the movement, not because of a cult-like aspect, but because of the experience of living with images of tortured animals that redefines their identities and priorities (as Chloe blows her audition and Sarah stops showing up at the newspaper where she works). Being involved in such a movement, even before getting into illegal activities, creates a dual identities for the members of the group where the links between their “normal” identities and their ALF identities become more tenuous and less real to them.

So, a good film to see if/when it really comes out here.

And let’s not forget the one star of this film, the raid truck:

The Visual Du Jour – Stealth Conflicts

Stealth conflict is, of course, a concept borrowed from Virgil Hawkins, denoting conflicts that are by and large ignored by Western media for a variety of reasons (as opposed to chosen conflicts). As a result, a stealth conflict, when it is not completely ignored, is often treated as impossible to explain, based on ancestral tribal rivalries that are so atavistic as impossible to stop (the underlying colonial racist logic is only thinly veiled here). The most egregious example of stealt conflict is, of course, the conflict in the DRC but Somalia does not rank far behind. So, it is nice to see at least an attempt at explaining the sequence of events that led to a country without government and torn by conflicting parties:

It is a nice attempt but it is very light on content and quite simplified, which is a common problem when one designs infographics: striking the right balance between overloading the visual with information v. oversimplifying. But it is more attention than this conflict has received. Actually, most of the attention paid to Somalia has been on pirates because they kidnapped Westerners or threatened Western interests.

David Brooks is an Idiot

And so, the overpaid pompous pseudo-sociologist tells us all that the perpetrators of mass killings are driven by psychological factors: mental illness, bruised pride or loss of job. Nothing sociological. Psychology explains it all (insert obligatory disclaimer that we can never really know for sure!).

So, here we go again. Just like Jack Douglas described years ago the mechanisms of the social construction of suicide, there are equally mechanisms of the social construction of mental illness. As I joked on Facebook, killings by blacks are ghetto warfare, killings by Latinos are related to drug cartels, but killings by whites are individual acts of mental illness (note how Brooks goes digging for a non-white case). And for those of us who have seen Tough Guise, we already know that when women kill, then it’s all feminism’s fault, unless the killers are obviously non-feminist women (Andrea Yates), in which case, they’re obviously crazy (rather than committing in Yates’s case religiously-based violence). Different social categories, different conceptualization and categorization of the same type of action.

Similarly, to declare an act to be the product of mental illness does not just absolve (somewhat) the perpetrator from full responsibility. It also shuts down the discussion by placing the act as outside the scope of rational explanation. The person was crazy. We may shake our heads and deplore the state of mental health care but since such an action, being crazy, is, by definition, unpredictable and unexplainable… nothing to see. Let’s all pray for the victims of this senseless (!!) act.

What is then never discussed is HOW we define and socially construct mental illness. The flip side of this is that mental illness is so perceived because it is fully embedded in the culture as deviation from it. As I said when I discussed the Gabby Gifford shooting, the perpetrator did not choose to run naked in the streets or do something similarly outside of the norms that would get him labeled as crazy. In both cases, the perpetrators tapped into cultural and social resources: the availability of weapons, the use of the Internet, the rational selection of equipment, the choice of target. And certainly, the Aurora shooter was rather well prepared, all geared up and picked a dark, closed place, and picked the ‘right’ moment in the movie to start shooting. And, of course, he picked just the right movie (because crazy people do keep track of the box office).

None of this is psychological.

And then, of course, there is the big elephant in the room that Brooks conveniently ignores:

“Many of the killers had an exaggerated sense of their own significance, which, they felt, was not properly recognized by the rest of the world. Many suffered a grievous blow to their self-esteem — a lost job, a divorce or a school failure — and decided to strike back in some showy way.”

And that, of course, is the gender thing. As is a major point in Tough Guise and is still true, in all these killings, the perpetrators are white males perceiving – and reacting to – the loss of privilege or dominant position and reclaiming it in a manly fashion. So, indeed, it may be a loss of control over one’s family with divorce or loss of custody (and in these cases, we see husbands / fathers killing their wives and children), the inability to get women (as the guy who shot women in an LA Gym after his implementation of pick-up artist techniques failed), loss of job (and therefore income and therefore ability to provide). And in the case of Breivik, the perceived loss of white supremacy to immigrants.

In all cases, the essential background is patriarchy. But somehow, this fact must never enter the discussion. Let’s just say these guys were crazy and move right along. The whole ” solving problems / satisfying fantasies through gun violence” cultural theme is gendered. This is the cultural background that these men tap into when they lash out.

And, of course, family / work / immigration are all social institutions and processes where we are embedded into a variety of social relations whose status determine our happiness / satisfaction / fulfillment (or the negative counterparts of these). Our emotions and feelings towards others (relative, co-workers, immigrants) are inherently social. It is in the “in-between” of these interactions between individuals that feelings are generated.

And, of course, Brooks makes the common mistake to assume that to look for sociological factors that have played a part in a killing means to excuse or justify the action. That is so profoundly stupid.

There is an intersection on my way to work where a lot of accidents happen. I can see why. It is a busy, yet poorly designed, intersection. To point out that the structure of this intersection may account for a generally higher level of accidents is not to exonerate the people who get into them. It simply means that the structure of this intersection (for which individual drivers are not responsible) makes accidents more likely than at other intersections when people cut it close at the light change (for which they are responsible). According to Brooks, people just happen to turn into bad drivers at this particular intersection. A proper sociologist would argue that it is the interaction between structural factors (the intersection) and certain drivers (careless ones) that explains the elevated accident rate.

So, crazy:

Legitimately aggrieved according to mainstream media commentators like Brooks, but not crazy:

Book Review – Evil

In Evil, sociologist Michel Wieviorka aims to claim “evil” as a territory for sociological investigation. It is not hard to see why sociologists have stayed away from the topic. It is thorny one. And after all, Durkheim taught us all long ago to avoid just adopting common sense categorizations and running with them without examining their social construction as social fact. So, since evil is a common sense concept par excellence, and a rather multi-form and vague one, one can easily see why sociologists have stayed away from the concept as a whole. But it is true that by doing so, we have abandoned that territory to philosophy, religious studies and *gasp* even psychology.

But, I am one of those sociologists who think we should drag our muddy sociological boots (sociology is muddy par excellence, that is its greatness) where people think they don’t belong, so, naturally, I grabbed the book hoping for, at least, some conceptual clarity and investigative pathways into the topic. Alas, I was deeply disappointed for a variety of reasons.

First of all, the book feels a bit disjointed and that is because the book is not really a book, it is a collection of sections extracted from another book (Nine Lessons of Sociology). Evil is a collection of the chapters in Nine Lessons that were on negative topics, leaving aside the chapters on positive topics. So, Evil ends up being rather short (133 pages of text), divided on five chapters (evil as sociological topic, violence, terrorism, racism, and pathways to research on evil). In addition, the translation feels a bit clunky and to word-for-word, French to English. It makes for a weird read. I don’t know if it is a Polity issue but I noted the same translation problem with Florence Aubenas’s The Night Cleaner. So, that does not help.

Then, when discussing evil, one can immediately see the problem with the collection of chapters. Chapters 1 and 5 are more straight “why we should have a sociology of evil” and “how we should do it”. They have problems of their own that I will discuss below but they make sense. The real thematic difficulty comes with chapter 2, 3 and 4. So, is this what evil is? Violence, racism and terrorism? That’s it? That list seems a bit arbitrary to me. I can think of a lot of other examples of evil. And again, evil has a major definitional issue as sociological concept.

So let me get into the substance of the book a bit more.

Again, the starting point is that, for Wieviorka, there should be a sociology of evil and this is the right time to develop it as the traditional sociological dichotomies have been successfully challenged (body / mind, nature / culture, individual / collective, and the all-time sociological favorite, structure / agency) especially if we enter the concept of evil through its unavoidable link to suffering, and suffering itself is a social phenomenon. Indeed, suffering is at the heart of the human rights regime which demands recognition of suffering in different forms, but suffering is also at the heart of what we tend to call identity politics and the ethnicization of society (the increasing definition of self through an ethnic identity) and part of the historical narrative that accompanies such ethnicization (that includes the identity of victim if not directly, at least historically and generationally). But right off the bat, Wieviorka operates a subtle shift: from evil to violence. I would argue that that is not the same concept. The two are separate. To reduce evil to violence, then one does not need the concept of evil. We already have extensive work on the sociology of violence (and quite a bit from Wieviorka himself). So what does bringing evil to the sociological table add? Hard to tell. Take this, for instance:

“Yesterday, the socialization of children, or migrants, involved learning the national historical narrative; today, migrants and their children contribute to changing this narrative, forcing the nation to recognize  the less glorious pages of its past, its areas of darkness and practices of violence and brutality. From this point on, evil becomes an object for the social sciences: they have to give a convincing account, on one hand, of the past and the present of the groups who mobilize on the basis of an identity as victims; and, on the other, of the impact of their demands on community life. How was violence organized in the past, or how is it organized in the present; and how do the processes of negation of the Other, of destruction and self-destruction, of harm to one’s physical and moral integrity, function?

It is no longer possible to declare, as it was until recently, that to try to understand barbarism, violence, cruelty, terrorism or racism is to open the way to evil, which needs quite simply to be fought without making any effort to understand – any effort of that kind being automatically classed as a mark of weakness. In fact, if we do wish to combat evil, it is preferable to know and understand it. There is a need here, a social demand which calls for analytical tools and studies; the social sciences are better qualified to provide these than moral judgments, philosophical considerations or religious a priori.” (9)

See what I mean? It is all conceptually very muddy: evil, violence, barbarism, brutality, cruelty. Is this all the same? How are these things related? Are they all subcategories of evil? Is interpersonal violence the only form of violence and evil to be considered? What of structural violence? These two paragraphs, to me (I could certainly be wrong), perfectly illustrate the constant conceptual shift that Wieviorka operates throughout the book. But are you really discussing evil when you are discussing racism or terrorism or interpersonal violence in general? I think it is all well and good to want to extirpate evil from the clutches of philosophy and religion but for what purpose? What does this concept add to the sociology of violence / racism / terrorism? This constant conceptual drift persists throughout the book. At the same time, if we accept, arguendo, the concept of evil as violence, racism, terrorism, etc., then we accept it as it is socially defined.

“Evil becomes a sociological category and ceases to be a purely religious category when it is treated as a crime, including a crime against humanity, not as a sin; when it can and must be envisaged as a social and historical problem that falls within the scope of human will and justice, and when it ceases to be a theological fact or the manifestation of an instinct.” (11)

But whether evil is treated as sin or crime does not make really any difference because both are socially constructed commonsense categories, the product of processes of structure, history and power. To define evil so does not neutralize the weight of commonsense definition. Evil is still not a social fact in that definition. Shouldn’t the first step in defining evil as an object of sociological investigation to reject the ready-made conceptualizations that societies provide and question these? To state “I hereby declare evil to be a sociological object, so, back off, religion and philosophy” is not enough.

And if that is not confusing enough, then, there is this:

“The closer evil comes to corresponding to the categories and concerns of the social sciences, the more their analytical principles must be applied, in the same way as they are used to study other problems and other social facts. Amongst these principles there is the idea that actors are never either totally unaware or totally aware of the meaning of their action. In other words they are never totally non-responsible; they are of necessity accountable for their actions, or they should be.  In this sense, the advance of the knowledge of evil, thank to the social sciences, goes hand in hand with the idea that the thesis of the banality of evil must be, if not set to one side, at least considered with the utmost caution.” (13)


Again, how does this square the acceptance of commonsense definitions of evil (minus the religious overtones)? And this, basically ends the first chapter with no clear sociological definition of evil. As I mentioned before, this is followed by three thematic chapters on violence, terrorism and racism. So, at this point, we are left with “evil = bad stuff we don’t like” and even that might be questioned: is all violence necessarily bad, let alone evil? Paging Franz Fanon.

But as one reads these three chapters, the real theme of the book becomes more apparent: a rejection of the structural and the social and an aggressive return of the Subject (capitalized in the book), with heavy references to Touraine and Latour. This is the real point of the sociology Wieviorka proposes: a sociology of the Subject, then confronted with evil, either as perpetrators, but, more essentially, as victims. On all three topics, Wieviorka argues that the culture, history and structures have received all the sociological attention but that Subjects, and especially victims (Wieviorka does mention perpetrators but he is much more interested in victims) have been neglected not just as victims but as agents. This allows Wieviorka to develop two typologies, in the case of violence, that he will use on the other topics as well: one for the types of violence based on Subject meaning and the type of Subjects involved in violence.

  • Violence based on the loss of meaning (“when the actor comes to express a meaning that has become lost or impossible and resorts to violence because he is unable to construct the confrontational action that would enable him to assert his social demands or cultural or political expectations, because no political process is available for dealing with them.” (19))
  • Violence based on ideology
  • Violence as myth-disintegration
  • Gratuitous violence, violence for its own’s sake
  • Violence as other- and self-destruction (suicide terrorism, martyrdom)
  • Violence as obedience to authority (the Eichmann in Jerusalem defense)

And the types of subjectivity linked to violence (capitalization in the original):

  • The Floating Subject who resorts to violence because of an inability to become a social actor (see the alienated youth from the French suburbs in 2005).
  • The Hyper-Subject resorts to violence through an excess of meaning through meta-political, religious and mythical meaning. This is the violence of zealot and martyr.
  • The Non-Subject exercises violence without involving his subjectivity, as the participants in Milgram’s experiments. It is simply violence as subjection to authority.
  • The Anti-Subject denies the Other the status of Subject through dehumanization, as we see in the dynamics that lead to genocides. It involves gratuitous cruelty and violence.
  • The Survivor Subject, before any violence has taken place, is one who feels threatened for his integrity and existence and acts violently as a survival response to the perceived threat.

One can see that this typology can be useful and how it can lead to certain ideas when it comes to preventing or dealing with different forms of violence (some much less clear and satisfying than others).

  • The Floating subject  provides institutional channels for conflict resolution as well as training of social and political players (bottom-up strategy)
  • The Hyper-Subject  use the “moderates” from the same religious or ideological background to intervene before a hardening of fundamentalisms (top-down strategy)
  • The Non-Subject  delegitimize the authority involved
  • The Anti-Subject  repression and education
  • The Survivor Subject  providing mental models to change the perception

But what does this have to do with evil?

The topic of violence also allows Wieviorka to introduce the second main theme of the book, after the Subject: globalization. The Subject and globalization are the two poles that he considers should guide the sociological investigation of evil. This allows him to evacuate any form of social structure from analysis, albeit not convincingly and not consistently. But the combination of the centrality of the Subject in the context of globalization leads him to the following formulation:

“The arena of violence is widening, while the scope for organizing debate and a framework for conflict to deal with social problems is shrinking, lacking, or vanishing. Conversely that arena becomes smaller when the conditions of institutionalized conflict permit a negotiated solution, even in circumstances of great tensions between actors. Violence is not conflict; rather it is the opposite. Violence is more likely to flare up when an actor can find no-one to deal within his or her attempts to exert social or political pressure, when no channels of institutional negotiation are available.” (27)

Wieviorka argues that this is the case with the decline of the labor movement in the context of globalization as unions have always been a disciplining force for the working class, as well as offering institutionalized ways to resolve conflict. But he should take the next step and recognize that this has been accompanied by a hardening of state repression on labor issues.

When it comes to the victims of violence, Wieviorka argues that there are three types of suffering that need to be addressed:

  • Collective identity (such as the victims of ethnic violence, genocide) where past mass violence was directed at an entire population, culture, etc.
  • Individual participation in modern life: being the descendants of slaves, to have been deprived of property, rights or a sense of belonging to a larger modern collectivity (such as a nation-state through the denial of basic political and civil rights).
  • Personal subjectivity, that is the denial of the ability to become a Subject through dehumanization, demonization, etc. for the direct victims of violence.

Wieviorka uses these typologies in his analysis of the other two topics: global terrorism and racism. And I have to say that there is nothing really new or uniquely insightful in these chapters if one is already well-read on either subjects.

And the last, and longest chapter of the book tries to weave together the two lines of the Subject and globalization at the expense of structure and society, and that is done with pretty broad pronouncements (“This is not the time to fight the enemies of the Subject – they have been defeated, in any event for the time being.” (89)). Here again, this chapter is plagued with conceptual ambiguities relating to the Subject, individualism, and individualization. In the glorification of the Subject, Wieviorka neglects the fact (mentioned by Bauman, Beck and Sennett, among others), that becoming a Subject, in individualized condition, is often not a choice in the global context of liquid society.

But what is most disappointing is the end result of all this throwing out of the structural baby with the societal bath water in the study of evil:

“By agreeing to be not only a sociology of the good, by opening up to this dimension of the anti-Subject, sociology can avoid a form of romanticism whereby the Subject is of necessity an attractive character, sometimes happy but usually unhappy; it leaves theoretical and practical scope for the darkest aspects of the human individual; it provides theoretical tools with which to embark on concrete research into phenomena as significant as racism, violence, or anti-Semitism.” (108)

My handwritten note in the book reads “that’s it?” and that is exactly what thinking. Really, that was the point of flushing structure (in the name of the Subject) and society (in the name of globalization)? To establish that people sometimes do bad things? I would argue that there is as much explanatory potential for violence in ALL forms (interpersonal, structural or symbolic) through the workings of individuals, interpersonal interactions (micro-aggressions), organizational and institutional and structural. To evacuate some of these layers deprives oneself of strong analytical tools. Similarly, as many globalization theorists have demonstrated, it is too early to completely dismiss the nation-state and society. The dynamics of globalization are more multi-layered and more complex than that (from glocalization to grobalization, and other processes).

And finally, it is also way too early to cavalierly dismiss the power of collective and social movements in the name of the individual. Globalization is still a very collectively contested terrains for social movements, especially of the alter-globalization kind.

So, by the end of the book, do not really expect to have figured out what a sociological reconceptualization of evil means and implies (if you do, please leave a comment because I would really like to know). It felt like the topic of evil was a bit of a cover up for a more theoretical discussion leading to the promotion of an approach based on the Subject and globalization. But neither topics are convincingly developed to created a shiny new approach to the topic of evil (or any other topic, for that matter). If one is interested in the topic of the individual confronted with globalization (in all its dimensions), one is much better off going back to Bauman, Beck, Sennett or Castells who have done a better job of it.

The Visual du Jour – Peace

The annual Global Peace Index for 2012:

No big surprises here: Sudan, DRC, Yemen, Iran and Afghanistan “top” the list of least peaceful countries and Scandinavia still has the most peaceful countries, with Iceland as number 1, with the rest of Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand in the same category. I wonder what all these countries have in common.

What the index is based on:

The US Peace index dates from 2010 and, big surprise:

The top 15 most peaceful states:

The bottom (least peaceful) states:

This certainly supports the thesis that greater structural violence creates more of other kinds of interpersonal violence.

Hunger Games v. Battle Royale

[Disclaimer: I have read the entire Hunger Games trilogy but have not (yet) seen the movie.]

First off, if you have not watched the analysis videos of the Hunger Games on Feminist Frequency, you should do that. Go ahead:

And comparing film and book:

I pretty much agree with everything in these videos, which is why I actually liked the Japanese film “Battle Royale” better than the Hunger Games even though it is extremely objectionable in terms of gender.

One of the ways in which Battle Royale has a better background story than Hunger Games is in the conflict between youth and adult cultures. In HG, it is hard to envision parents not rebelling every year at the idea of sending two of their children for the Games just like that. BR deals with that aspect much better: both stories involve economic and then social collapse. In BR, the social collapse has been marked by an explosion of deviant youth culture across the country, turning adults against the youthful mobs and their criminal behavior. It is therefore not surprising that the BR Act would be passed and that no one would raise issues with randomly picking a class of 9th graders to fight each other to death. That is seen as generational punishment and complete breakdown between adults and adolescents. In HG, picking young people makes the fights more lively and interesting for the audience. After all, it’s all a spectacle. In BR, it is punishment by proxy.

Because this is a Japanese film, there is no avoidance of violence and gore but there is also a lot more humanity in all the contestants whereas in the HG, a few contestants are humanized (mainly, Katniss, Peeta and Rue) and the rest are largely either not explored or dehumanized (like the career tributes, depicted as sadistic and murderous sociopaths, even though it is not really their fault, they were socialized to be like that). Anita Sarkeesian makes the good point that in the film, though, the female tributes are depicted as especially sociopathic whereas Cato gets some humanization towards the end.

So, yes, BR is much more gruesomely violent (audiences under 15 were not allowed, whereas the HG film limited the violence to get a PG13 rating). One could debate the issue of glamorizing the violence or emphasizing other aspects. What I thought was interesting in BR is how much of the violence is horrifying to the teenagers themselves. And that is one of the major aspects of BR: a lot of the killings are clumsy, inadvertent, and side-effects of other dynamics than just pure murderous intent, such as just being scared s!@#$less.

Many deaths occur because teenagers just plucked from their school life simply do not know how to become competent killers. Some give up right away and commit suicide (fatalistic suicide), some kill each other by mistake because they were afraid (as when Kotohiki kills Sugimura even though he was coming to get her to safety). But even the one girl who gets closed to being seen as a sociopathic killer gets humanized and we get an explanation for her behavior (her addicted, prostituting mother selling her to men).

It is also noteworthy that right away, several of the teenagers constitute themselves in teams not to kill more effectively but to figure out solutions even though that is done along traditional gender lines: two girls just shout out to the other to just not fight and meet to talk it over (before being killed by one of the two former winners still in the game) while three geek boys get to work on a computer solution, hacking into the surveillance system of the game.

Finally, the main couple, Shuya and Noriko, play the traditional role: he protects her, she falls ill and slips into a mild coma for a while while he runs around trying to find a way out, ending up locked up in the lighthouse with a bunch of girls who end up killing each other based on old grudges from schools and also based on a stupid mistake… pfft… girls.

In a way, the concept of the game in BR is worse than HG as it takes an entire class of 9th graders who know each other and may be friends and then make them kill each other, as opposed to the tributes who only know the other tribute from their own districts thanks to the absolute segregation between districts. And BR does a good job of presenting the existing relations and collective primary groups feelings between the students with flashbacks to the basketball games (although, again, highly gendered: the boys play the game, the girls cheer from the sidelines).

And as in the HG, the main couple does survive but instead of the Gamemakers bending the rules this one time and declaring them both victors, in BR, they end up wanted for murder, completely alienated from the rest of the culture and living on the run. And even though they are still teenagers, their maturing is obvious. Because the game, in BR, is a punishment for a loathed generation, there are no rewards for the victors except that they get to go home whereas in HG, the Games are one of the means through which the Capitol maintains control (the whole Panem and circenses thing) through a divide and conquer institution that provides entertainment for the Capitol and reinforced powerlessness for the districts.

Interestingly, in BR, we, the real audience, are the audience for the game as we get to see the countdown of deaths (from 42 to the end) on our screen. That is, we are made to be the adult audience watching the teenagers killing each other with no chance of escape. That is a deliberate directorial choice. Note that the same thing sorta happens inadvertently in the HG movie with the death of Foxface whose killing made real movie audience cheer. BR does not expect such cheering on any death. Every single death, in BR is truly portrayed as tragic and useless in that annual culling, which is why we are made to watch them all, with blood and gore.

In that sense, BR makes a stronger point to the audience than HG.