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Violence Goes Pop - Pop Goes Violent

Aga Zano By Aga Zano Published on January 18, 2016

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Idrissa Diagne found this witty
This article was updated on February 17, 2016

We live in interesting times. Violence has been omnipresent in the media, especially since the 2015 refugee crisis and numerous terrorist attacks that have echoed loudly in the international media. However, violence is not only a news topic – it’s a commodity, and as such it’s been used more and more freely in the pop culture.

1. From Brilliant to Banal

‘Funny, passionate, bristling with idealism and luminously intelligent, Corrie emerges asa bona fide hero for this brutalised world of ours’. This is an excerpt from a blurb printed on the back cover of My Name Is Rachel Corrie. However, it is not Rachel’s admirable qualities that make the read attractive as much as the fact that she has died the most marketable death possible: tragic, heroic, unnecessary, and ideologically engaged. 

Rachel Corrie was an American peace activist volunteering in Gaza Strip, and a member of a pro-Palestinian organisation International Solidarity Movement. In 2003, not long before her 24th birthday, Rachel was crushed to death when acting as a human shield, trying to prevent an Israeli bulldozer from demolishing a Palestinian house. Although the story did receive a certain amount of coverage in the Western media, it was not until the publication of Rachel’s writings – in form of a theatre play, edited by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner – it has become a source of both high interest and controversy. The play is short, and it is constructed basing entirely (with exclusion of stage directions) on verbatim material – Rachel’s diary entries and e-mails sent to friends and family. After Rickman and Viner’s edition, the writings took form of a concise theatrical story of an idealistic college student, clearly aware of her privilege of a middle-class white American, eager to sacrifice safety and comfort for the sake of taking an active role in an issue she feels personally responsible for:

Yesterday I heard from Chris in Gaza I am being invited there. I need to go. ... I know I scare you, Mom. I’m sorry I scare you. But I want to write and I want to see. And what would I write about if I only stayed within the doll’s house, the flower-world I grew up in? You gave me a potential. I love you but I’m growing out of what you gave me. I’m saving it inside me and growing outwards. Let me fight my monsters. You made me. You made me. (Rachel Corrie, My Name Is Rachel Corrie)

The play’s simple, linear structure leads the reader from Rachel’s bedroom in Olympia, Washington, to her tragic death in Gaza months later. The script revolves around several elements: Rachel’s thoughts regarding her own personal development, daily notes and memos (such as to do lists), her reports from Gaza, and opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which she contemplates and discusses exclusively from pro-Palestinian perspective) and the feeling of her imminent death that is, in a way, present throughout the play, starting with an opening paragraph:

Every morning I wake up in my red bedroom that seemed like genius when I painted it, but looks more and more like a carnage these days. I blink for a minute, I get ready to write down some dreams. ... My eyes roll up towards the sky and I’m fucked now ... – ‘cause there is no sky. There’s that ceiling up there and it has me now – ‘cause I’m looking at it and it’s going to rip me to pieces.

This scene provides a framing device for the play’s last paragraph – the only text in the play not written by Rachel, however, still verbatim – a transcript of a testimony by Tom Dale, another International Solidarity Movement volunteer, who has witnessed the incident:

Rachel walked to place herself in between the home and the bulldozer. As the bulldozer turned towards them, it had about ... 10 seconds clear time directly with her in its view. ... It continued toward her ... with a mound of earth building up in front of it. ... She falls down the mound of earth and out of sight of the driver ... and then she starts to slide and you see one then both of her feet disappear and he simply continued until she was [...] directly under the cockpit of the bulldozer.
I ran for ambulance ..., she was showing signs of brain haemorrhaging. She died in the ambulance a few minutes later.

In this scene, the eyewitness’s monologue – delivered in form of a TV recording – the tragedy anticipated from the very beginning finally comes to a conclusion. The play was first staged in 2005 at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It was then scheduled to be transferred to the New York Theatre Workshop; however, due to the protests from Jewish communities, and due to its politically sensitive content (Corrie’s critical opinion on the US actions in the conflict), the play was postponed, and, eventually, withdrawn completely, moving to West End in March 2006. 

The responses to the play have been mixed; from enthusiastic – Rivka Jacobson describing it as ‘superbly directed’, ‘brilliantly performed’ and ‘engrossing’ – to very critical (‘With no attempt made to set the violence in context, we are left with the impression of unarmed civilians being crushed by faceless militarists’; ‘overtly anti-Israel biased [and] inaccurate’).

Quite interestingly, a lot of reviewers and commentators seem to distance themselves from the verbatim and documentary character of the piece, focusing rather on its aesthetical and political values – to quote Rivka Jacobson once again, remarking with a great deal of admiration that Alan Rickman and actress Megan Dodds together manage ‘to transform the somewhat banal and scatty 23 year old Rachel Corrie into a heroic figure worthy of audience attention' [sic!].  

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It is the level of objectification Corrie underwent that is particularly interesting. Her writings were not meant for publication, nor for staging – and as a result, Corrie, who was ultimately a victim of military violence, has been turned into an artistic commodity. By transposing Corrie on stage, and by doing so while using her own words, the creators – and the audiences – watered down the difference between a real-life victim and an artistic creation, the difference so easily overlooked in the media-saturated reality that deals with tragic circumstances basing on their marketing value (‘if it bleeds, it leads’). 

Rachel has been translated into a sign of her own self: her image both fetishised and deprived of original trauma. The images of Rachel have been turned merchandise, and can be bought on t-shirts and posters, in style reminding the famous Che Guevara portrait, also ultimately stripped off its meaning, and left an ornament – an attractive accessory of foreignised violence.

2. If It Bleeds, It Leads

The blurry line that lies between Rachel and her representation only deepens as the images of her last moments, as well as post mortem photographs, are widely available online. It could be argued that this clash of concepts is possible because of how we – the general postmodern Western audience – approach violence. In its omnipresence, violence and terror have been permanently inscribed upon the popular culture discourse, and as such, gradually detached from their meaning. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag comments on the phenomenon of collective consumption of violence through mass media:

Imagery that would have had an audience cringing and recoiling in disgust forty years ago is watched without so much as a blink by every teenager. … Indeed, mayhem is entertaining rather than shocking to many people in modern cultures. … The imaginary proximity to the suffering inflicted on others that is granted by images suggests a link between the faraway sufferers – seen up close on the television screen – and the privileged viewer that is simply untrue, that is yet one more mystification of our real relations to power. (Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others)

The case of Rachel Corrie is not only example of victim objectification, or even fetishisation, in the popular culture, nor is it the most imposing one. It is, however, worth mentioning for its strongly personal character, which does not seem to be the leading trend – in a vast majority of cases, victims remain depersonalised and unnamed, even as their stories go viral. In some cases, terror and violence can serve as instruments of brand building, as it was in case of a global fashion brand United Colors of Benetton. 

Amongst numerous controversial campaigns, including images of political and religious leaders and touching sensitive issues such as human race and sexuality, two of them clearly stood out. The 1994 campaign featured a photograph of blood-stained shirt and trousers that belonged to a Croatian soldier, killed during the war in former Yugoslavia; and the 2000 ‘Death Row’ campaign, presenting images of American prisoners sentenced for capital punishment.

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Another example that has electrified social media was a line of baseball tees with Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter printed on them – the public opinion considered it both tasteless and shocking. Still, it managed to gather a significant amount of commercial interest before being taken down by eBay, as it is against the site’s terms and conditions to sell ‘items that promote or glorify human tragedy, hatred, violence, racial, sexual, or religious intolerance’.

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What connects these campaigns is placing death and violence, both symbolic and very real one, in a position where they gain certain marketing potential, be it intentional or not (quite obviously, the company has always asserted that the sole purpose of the advertisements was to draw attention to burning social problems). And while gaining such potential, they are displayed and exposed for public viewing, their fundamental, liminal character stripped off them by the public’s demanding and objectifying gaze. 

The permission to look at the images which carry such history not only domesticates death but also provides the spectator with certain sense of empowerment, placing them in a position of control and demystifying violence, putting it in a different perspective. That gaze is a key dimension of power has been concluded by a number of theorists and scholars. 

Michel Foucault referred to Jeremy Bentham’s project of the Panopticon – a perfect prison – where the omnipresent, invisible gaze proves sufficient instrument of control. ‘The examination is the technique by which power, instead of emitting signs of its potency, instead of imposing its mark on its subjects, holds them in a mechanism of objectification’. Similarly, Laura Mulvey has introduced a bit more specific concept of male gaze – voyeuristic, objectifying and determining, allowing the spectator to claim the object of their gaze. In a similar fashion, exposition and commodification of images of violence and death has not only legitimised them as merchandise, but it has also allowed the spectators to symbolically claim their ownership over them – and domesticate them as a result.

3. Death Is All Rage In Capitol Now

Domestication and cultural harnessing of violence is a phenomenon neither new nor unusual: it may only seem so due to our, historically unparalleled, access to images and information – today’s executions and traumas can be viewed by millions rather than by dozens. However, there is another tendency emerging from previously discussed example, that is detaching signs of violence from their connotation.

One of currently most popular young adult novel series, The Hunger Games, introduces the reader to the utopian city of Capitol, which is controlling twelve poor and highly industrialised districts of Panem, a post-apocalyptic land that has emerged in place of the former United States of America. In order to cement and demonstrate its power, every year Capitol organises a morbid reality show, from which the series title took name. One girl and one boy between ages twelve and eighteen is provided by each district, in order for all children to fight to death while live footage is transmitted nationwide – a torture for the inhabitants of the districts and an exquisite entertainment for the privileged Capitol citizens, whose lives, comfort and luxurious lifestyle have never faced any threat. 

After the novel’s heroine Katniss Everdeen wins the 74th edition of the Games, first sparks of revolution start spreading throughout the country. Starved and terrorized citizens of heavily oppressed and brutally governed districts use the heroine’s lucky token, a mockingjay, as a symbol of the rebellion – a symbol heavy with meaning, as it stands not only for political resistance, but also symbolises years of suffering, courage to defy the system while risking one’s own life, and disagreement with the practice of annual child bloodbaths, cynically exploited by the state-governed media. However, when Katniss is brought to Capitol after her victory she discovers that the mockingjay – symbol of both suffering and resistance – has become the Capitol’s latest fad:

Apparently my mockingjay pin has spawned a new fashion sensation, because several people come up to show me their accessories. My bird has been replicated on belt buckles, embroidered into silk lapels, even tattooed in intimate places. Everyone wants to wear the winner’s token. I can only imagine how nuts that makes President Snow. But what can he do? The Games were such a hit here, where berries [that Katniss considered killing herself with - AZ] were only a symbol of a desperate girl trying to save her lover. (Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire)

The inappropriateness of such incorporation is, at first, striking – it clearly strips the symbol off its original meaning amongst the privileged class, who use it thoughtlessly and treat as an empty ornament. Nevertheless, the same system of semantic distillation can be observed in our own culture. A recent example that has probably gathered most international attention is the Urban Outfitters ‘blood-stained’ Kent State University jumper, which was considered an obvious reference to the 1970 Kent State massacre, where four unarmed college students were killed, and another nine wounded by the military forces during the Cambodian Campaign protest.

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After the social media storm the design has unleashed, the jumper has been withdrawn from sales, although it still appears in searches. According to analysts, even though the overall market response has been negative, the provocative action can still be considered profitable by the brand. ‘It’s offensive and a little bit tasteless, but shock value just can’t be underrated these days. In some ways it’s […] appealing to consumers to connect with a store […], and [telling] consumers they […] aren’t your parents lame old store’ commented Kit Yarrowa consumer psychology expert. 

Violence once again proves to be an ultimate marketing tool, even when pushing the ethical boundaries. Similar situation took place in Poland, when the Warsaw Uprising anniversary and premiere of the feature film Miasto 44 (Jan Komasa, 2014) have inspired series of clothing and accessories exploiting the symbols of the uprising. Amongst the available items one could find ‘blood-stained’ t-shirts, imitating gunshot wounds. The anchor emblem of the Polish Secret State and Home Army, used during the Second World War as a symbol of Polish resistance and fight for independence, has also been recycled into a fashion accessory, appearing on clothing, bags, mugs, key rings or in form of tattoos.

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While it could be argued that – unlike the fictional mockingjay – these real-life cases exploited symbols of the past reaching beyond their marketing target’s lifespan, the overall tendency for exploiting violence as merchandise strategy still seems valid. Death, fear and violence do, indeed, sell. And there is probably nothing that confirms this fact more explicitly than an increasing number of advertisements exploiting another iconic [sic!] act of violence that was the 9/11 World Trade Center attack not only for social campaigns, but also – in a way that could hardly be called subtle – promotion of cars, IT services or even mattresses.

It could be that violence, when filtered through the lens of contemporary media is, more intensely than ever, translated into a sign of itself – an empty sign. It can be observed that in the popular culture violence is being gradually and consequently distanced from its, meaning and instead being analysed and discussed just as any other element of the popular culture. It does, however, seem that the process of such transgression cannot be stopped – perhaps, instead of hoping to change it, Western culture should seek for other ways of perceiving violence, and to use new instruments to address it – defining anew its place within our own Capitol.

Translator, linguist, copywriter, literary agent. Enjoys bad puns, exploring ruined buildings and being the weird one.

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