Monday, February 22, 2016

Signification's Slaughter

In “TV History and Popular Memory,” Steve Anderson explores the notion of Andreas Huyssen’s concept of “creative forgetting” in light of television shows and movies that challenge the conventional narratives of history.  Anderson writes, “Just as experimentation with language displays ‘the inherent oppressiveness of the symbolic order,’ histories that are ‘uncoupled from the instrumental need to signify’ may reveal their own kind of creative brand of anarchy (14).
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five displays a historical moment in time that becomes “uncoupled from the instrumental need to signify, in turn unmasking its own brand of creative disorder. Repression is a natural result of the violent removal from the process of signification, and Vonnegut chose to parody his experience in the war via his comic double, Billy Pilgrim. What does war signify other than the Trafalmadorian view of inevitability? Vonnegut’s successful attempt to critique the romantic portrayal of war amounts to forced fragmentation—not a grand narrative exploring the meaning of tragic loss and mass chaos, but one man’s absurdly stoic outlook of a world where meaning fails to convey any particular truth.

 According to psychoanalytic theory, one must force a suppressed traumatic memory back into remembrance in order to transcend one’s dread(s).  Vonnegut’s fictional experiences (personal and otherwise) with war amount to tale[s] / Told by an idiot, full of sound and,fury, / Signifying nothing. In an interview conducted in 1991 (shortly after the Gulf War), Vonnegut lamented, “We have become such a pitiless people. And I think it's TV that's done it to us. When I went to war in World War II, we had two fears. One was we would be killed. The other was that we might have to kill somebody. And now killing is Whoopee. It does not seem much anymore. To my generation, it still seemed like an extraordinary thing to do, to kill.”  Ironically, modern warfare continues to be glorified in our culture, from gangs in Chicago bragging about surviving in “Chiraq” (though it can be convincingly argued that, due to socio-economic alienation due to gentrification among other factors, many in South Chicago and other centers of rampant poverty are doing what the Government intended: killing one another) where the death toll exceeds that of the Iraq War, to various video games (Call of Duty series) and movies (We Were Soldiers, American Sniper).

In our current culture, as underground hip-hop artist Aesop Rock would say, we are “Numb to the Guns,” thanks to television’s tendency to placate violence and promote apathetic attitudes toward horrific acts: “And after bubblegum, he sink into the sofa. / Clicker to pilot his broadcasted choice of cobra (hissssss). / The venom remains the same game of stale toxins/ Camo'd with the now ornamental satellite options…” While Anderson argues the innovative methods in which television has creatively enabled viewers to rethink historical happenings by harnessing cultural memories, televisual mediums (which have rampantly increased in the past two decades) allow a degree of separation between raw reality and experience.

While television and popularized forms of technology increasingly guide humankind’s process of cultural memory, we should remember that with every artistic advantage, including playful revision of history, comes an equal and opposite disadvantage: that of mindlessly surfing channels on the lookout for more interesting realities than we ourselves can manifest. The instantaneous transmission of a multiplicity of messages occurring simultaneously, such as on social media and crawls displaying information and statistics on the bottom of news coverage, has seemed to replace veracity with contending opinions, many of which are trivial and are based upon entertaining or shocking the public. The signifying chain of meaning has altogether ignored that which is meant to be signified, resulting in an extended present that mocks the notion of objective thinking: the bandwagon beckons.

Regarding the meaninglessness of devastation on a grand scale, Vonnegut metacognitively explains the reason his book is “jumbled and jangled” in Slaughterhouse Five”—because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre…All there is [for a bird] to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’” which signifies the arbitrariness of signification in the context of war (24). In order to allay the death of innocence and humanity, which war indiscriminately seizes, Vonnegut has produced a novel full of disparaging criticism (scripted schizophrenically) of those who wield the power to wage war, and I would add, who manipulate the media as well.



  1. It's interesting you bring up the glorification of violence, especially through war-based video games. In my advanced comp class, we spent the first unit talking about moral obligation and ethics. One of our students is a nearly decade-long retired soldier, and he mentioned in class how during recruitment, there would be floods of young kids coming into the recruitment centers and claiming they wanted to sign up for the military because they loved Call of Duty and other games like it. I couldn't believe how something as simple as video game depiction would encourage young adults to sign up for the military. When my grandpa served in Vietnam, he told me that the only thing they had been told prior to landing was to "shoot anyone who didn't look like you." He was dropped in the middle of Vietnam surrounded by flying bullets--and not by choice (he was drafted).

    I think we really do have a glorified view of war. The responses to American Sniper proved just how much Americans love their military. If you look at the current GOP candidates, every single one of them wants to raise the defense budget and build up the US military. We're obsessed with war, and it might take a war on home soil to ever see that viewpoint change.

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  3. I agree with McKenzie's argument but I think it should be taken a step further. The promotion of violence, not just in video games, is increasing. I was trying to think of wars that I've seen on television and the shows that are directed at more young adults and even children have a growing presence of war and violence in them. For example, if you look at the first Avengers movie that Disney put out, the final fight scene is essentially a war coming from aliens. Now granted, people aren't signing up for the military to help stop aliens from invading New York, but think of the message it may have sent to young children. Yeah, it may be cool to be a superhero, but to fight a war to defend your home is just as cool. Captain America himself was a soldier after all. I've seen this trend go across a lot of the superhero market as well. Watching some of the cartoons on Netflix show the heroes fighting armies of people. not just a single villain. What does that message send other than an army is needed to fight a war? I believe that the media has been actively trying to recruit people into the military through this glorification of war. It works too. As Mckenzie said, her grandpa was drafted. Is this glorification of war just a new way of drafting people without force?

  4. I always enjoy your posts.
    I appreciate that you mentioned that each advantage we see in television can also provide equal disadvantages. TV does often mock the notion of objective thinking, particularly about violence. Murders, even those not connected to war, are often glorified in some means or another. I think of the OJ v. The People series that recently aired and all of the news talk shows that spotlight criminals rather than their victims (Jodi Arias, anyone?).

    Ty, your point about even violence in Disney movies is so on point. Violence has become such a norm for America that it seems we are just immune to it (unless, of course, we might see it in person). This made me think of even a newer Disney film, Big Hero 6. Within the first 15 minutes, an extreme tragedy takes place. All I could think was: how is this a kids' movie?! But then I thought, well, violence is in most movies it seems now... So it goes.

  5. I have so many thoughts here. I remember the first Iraq War (Dessert Shield or Storm - I forget which witty news phrase came first). Scholars have talked about how that was the first "video taped" war and that the coverage we got on our TV screens *looked like* video games, hence starting our desensitization to violence.

    As a TV & Affect scholar I strongly believe that television contributes to our desensitization to violence. Think for a moment: do you really FEEL sad when you see a car wreck on the side of the road. We have been trained to gawk and look at these images (creating traffic back ups) and I would argue this is only possible because we don't truly feel sad when we see such images. We may think "that's sad" but I don't think it registers on our body the way real sadness would. We've been numbed.

    News has also become our schadenfreude in sense. The real OJ Simpson coverage (the car chase and the trial) changed TV forever. It killed the soap opera and sparked two new genres: court TV and reality TV. Both new genres (along with the original coverage of OJ Simpson) allowed people that sense of schadenfreude - they were able to enjoy the misery of other. They were voyeuristic - allowing us to see into things we normally wouldn't see. So, yes, I agree with every evolution in entertainment, genre, media, comes certain disadvantages.

  6. You ask the question "What does war signify other than the Tralfamadorian view of inevitability?" which I feel goes directly with what Eliot Rosewater comments to Billy. During their stay at the hospital, he notes "that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov," which is important to your question as the novel is directly commenting on morality, ethics, and free will. It is also doubly important because Rosewater first introduces Billy Pilgrim to the author Kilgore Trout, whose stories are deceptively similar to that of the views of the Tralfamadorians (as Billy would soon find out). Is it coincidence that Rosewater (and subsequently Kilgore) bring these points to light with Billy (with Kilgore being unheard of by anyone other than Billy or Rosewater) or is this just a wild goose chase, a point of unreliability (with Vonnegut as the narrator or Billy as the main character)?

    Coincidentally you bring up films and video games as both cause and consequences of this numbing and desensitization toward violence or disturbing images. One film that comes to mind is the film Full Metal Jacket (a film I have talked about in a previous blog). Directed by Stanley Kubrick, the film repeatedly points out and satirizes different aspects of war. For example, Kubrick shows how even soldiers who are training to become soldiers can break or turn on one another (when "Gomer Pyle" messes up and the entire barracks beats him with soap bar s stuffed in socks, and subsequently when "Gomer Pyle" loads a rifle and kills the drill instructor before himself). It also goes on to show how even so much as wording and media coverage changes the atmosphere of the conflict among the soldiers and civilians (with the editor stating ""If we move Vietnamese, they are evacuees. If they come to us to be evacuated, they are refugees." or "But why say North Vietnamese Army regular? Is there an irregular? How about North Vietnamese Army soldier?"). Shortly after, two of the main characters (journalist soldiers named Joker and Rafterman) are flying in an airplane while another soldier (nicknamed Animal Mother) is using a mounted machine gun to fire upon Vietnamese Civilians, stating "Anyone who runs is a V.C. Anyone who stands still is a well-disciplined V.C."

    Kubrick is using his film to show how even soldiers themselves are forced to become desensitized by their own actions and the actions of those around them (while, ironically, using a film full of graphic violence to do so). And anyone has seen the film cannot forget the end scene of a group of American soldiers unironically marching through a burning Vietnamese city to the tune of the Mickey Mouse March, with a voiceover of the main character, Joker, stating "I am so happy that I am alive, in one piece and short. I'm in a world of shit, yes. But I am alive. And I am not afraid." This same character also happens to be the one who joins the journalism platoon so that he specifically doesn't have to fight (but happily wears a helmet that reads 'Born to Kill' with a peace sign attached to it, both of which get commented on by superiors).

  7. This idea of being "numb to the guns" is usually linked, as you briefly noted, to video games and heightened media. We have become so numb to violence that it doesn't phase us anymore. I do think there is a big difference between war itself and video games. Video games that involve shooting are merely a symptom of a society in which violence is more commonplace and natural, rather than the cause. Movies show violence because we have become desensitized to it, though all of these have encouraged that desensitization. Through new more immediate forms of media, events like war and murder are more easily accessed. This spread of quick media has definitely contributed to the desensitization.