Response: part 2 of 3

posted by David Griffith on May 4th, 2007

A Good War Is Hard to FindSorry it’s taken so long to come up with part 2 of my response. Many forces have conspired against me to ensure that I didn’t finish, among them the horrible tragedy at Virginia Tech.

To pick up on point I made in part 1, it takes putting ourselves in the picture (in much the same way that as Christians we must remind ourselves that we are complicit in Jesus’ suffering and death) in order for the violence in the Abu Ghraib photos to strike us as worth our regard (which, for those of who have suggested that I either naively or willfully snubbed postmodernity in my book, is exactly the problem I’m trying to warn against, considering we live in an image-based culture—call it postmodern, if you like—wherein the tendency is for images to serve only as references to other images, not to any actual event).

But to suggest, as Mike Ciul does, that I am on a quest for shame illustrates, to me, the truly troubling (postmodern?) predicament we find ourselves in. This is where I actually think using the term Postmodern is useful, as a pejorative, an ignominious label. It now seems fitting to evoke the set of larger social/cultural/economic/political circumstances that have brought us to this moment, because it surely takes a combination of powerful systemic forces ordering our lives and perceptions to bring us to the point where we distrust our conscience.

To try to close on this business of shame: Shame is a state of infamy; you’ve been caught in a lie and you have to own up to it, and in the process you (hopefully) wonder why what you did ever seemed a good idea in the first place. Why did you think you could get away with it? Given the associations that I have with the word, I take Mike’s reading of the book to heart. So, do I want to shame the reader into line, into shape, into agreeing with me about the preponderance of violence in our culture, popular and otherwise and what might be its effects? Not quite. There is no “we” when I think about he imagined audience of this book, there are only individuals, a vast array of different kinds of people reading this book all at once. Shame is something the individual experiences much more profoundly than a whole group. Large-scale shame doesn’t work because there’s always someone else there to scapegoat (see the work of Renee Girard, especially I See Satan Fall Like Lightning) to pass the buck to: “It’s not me. I don’t think that way.” So what ends up happening is we all agree that someone should feel shame—just not me—or, as Mike seems to be saying, “Sure, okay, there is a certain amount of shame and guilt involved in looking at violent acts, whether they be on film or on network TV news, but is that it? Is that all you have for us? We should feel shame? Tell me something I don’t know.” Point taken, but I want to suggest that real shame is profound and effecting and can change one’s behavior and outlook on the world, which is what my book is about: the process of seeing: Why we see the way we do? What are the stakes of seeing the way we do?

When I started thinking about shame, I thought of Adam and Eve in the garden. After eating of the Tree of Knowledge and being chastised by the Almighty, they suddenly realize that they are naked and are ashamed to the point that they fashion crude clothing out of fig leaves, or underbrush, or something. Not that the definition of shame in this context trumps all other nuances of the word because it appears in the Bible, but I do find it instructive that shame, in this story of the original moment of civilization, is the result of disobedience encouraged by the result of the lie the serpent tells Eve, the distrust the serpent sows in her. “Look, you think this guy has your best intentions in mind,” he might have said. Shame comes, then, as a result of overreaching, overstepping, becoming so prideful (as C.S. Lewis says, the “ant-God state of mind”) that you feel that you will be able to avoid, elude, shed culpability—you feel, in effect, that you are beyond reproach; you will not be effected/subjected to the same fate as others who have tried what you have tried to get away with and failed. You’re smarter than them. This is how I see shame. (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that this is how Phillip G. Zimbardo, Prof Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford and deviser of the famous 1971 “Prison Experiment,” and author of the new book, The Lucifer Effect, sees the human capacity for evil—a slippery slope beginning with self-deluding.)

So, Mike Ciul is then correct in charging that I am interested in shame, although to say I’m a on a “quest” for it seems to mock the journey anyone embarks on when they start to reflect on their own complicity. And yes, I am interested in why others might not feel it as acutely as I do. But it’s not about not being “cool enough” or “compassionate enough” to look upon these images and see wrong and immediately know it to be wrong and reject it as such. It’s about seeing these images with their extensions of meaning up close, as Flannery O’Connor said of grotesque images in her own work; that these images connect us to a point in the distance that imbues them with intentions beyond our initial ability to comprehend. In other words, images that foreground the mystery of evil and take evil seriously (as the morally blinding effect of pride); instead of settling for the postmodernist tendency to see the predominance and efficacy of violence in popular culture a direct result of the fact that life is violent, chaotic and ambiguous—who is qualified to say what it all means? Death means nothing. It’s just the motherfucker of life (sorry, no other word seemed to work).

Part 3 will be along shortly…

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One Comment Leave a comment.

  1. On November 24, 2007 at 02:12 Mike Ciul said:

    It’s good to finally see your responses. I’ve been offline for quite a while and never got to see any of this discussion.

    What a personal book “A Good War…” is, and what personal reactions it has produced! I knew my review was based on a lot of inner crap I was dealing with, but to see your response I discover there’s even more than I realized.

    I apologize for my flippant use of the word “tragic.” It was the wrong word.

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