Tuesday, January 08, 2008

O Yeah, THIS Looks Like a Good Idea

Economist Gordon Dahl takes a stab at violence reduction by steady doses of slasher/gore films to the criminally violent and general populace:
Are movies like “Hannibal” and the remake of “Halloween,” which serve up murder and mutilation as routine fare, actually making the nation safer?

A paper presented by two researchers over the weekend to the annual meeting of the American Economic Association here challenges the conventional wisdom, concluding that violent films prevent violent crime by attracting would-be assailants and keeping them cloistered in darkened, alcohol-free environs.

Instead of fueling up at bars and then roaming around looking for trouble, potential criminals pass the prime hours for mayhem eating popcorn and watching celluloid villains slay in their stead.

“You’re taking a lot of violent people off the streets and putting them inside movie theaters,” said one of the authors of the study, Gordon Dahl, an economist at the University of California, San Diego. “In the short run, if you take away violent movies, you’re going to increase violent crime.”

Professor Dahl and the paper’s other author, Stefano DellaVigna, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, attach precise numbers to their argument: Over the last decade, they say, the showing of violent films in the United States has decreased assaults by an average of about 1,000 a weekend, or 52,000 a year.

Quirky. I'd love to know how he quantifies such "decreased assaults" -- mind reading? Precognition? Meanwhile, Mark Shea takes succinct exception in a related piece aptly entitled RUBBISH.

Mimetic theory agrees with Shea, not to mention mirror neurons. Such balderdash from an economist belongs in the bull-sessions of the undergrad dining room, not for publication. Lest someone actually take his advice seriously.


truepeers said...

I think mimetic theory is much more ambivalent on this point than you suggest. The essence of Girard's idea, after all, is that sacrificial violence does work (at least for a time, and at a moral cost if only in retrospect) to preserve social order. And Eric Gans' Generative Anthropology expands the idea with its claim that the essence of culture is the deferral of violence through representation.

A violent film will both promote violent desires and defer them. We might all prefer young men to be engaged reading books or playing sports, but if the question is what will be the effect of sacrificial violence on the (potentially) criminal youth, we are left with the paradox that all of history is about: for how long will the staged sacrifice work to maintain some deferral of violence, some order? The decline of Hollywood and the rise of video games provides a clue: the culture has to evolve new ways, representing violence, to defer violence and the direction is towards more interactive media. No doubt the preferred solution is towards an understanding that liberates us from the more crude sacrificial desires but I don't think any of us completely overcomes the need or desire for representations of sacrifice.

What's more, watching violent films may provide the viewer with a glimmer of self-consciousness. For every kid who goes out of the theatre and gets in a fight, or acts more imaginatively horrific, another might be having a moment, however crude, of anthropological reflection precisely because the horror film has raised the stakes by both showing and to a degree unveiling raw violence: where a romanticized mafia film may have encouraged his violence, a slasher film might work to defer it, or perhaps vice versa. As I say, I don't think we can escape the consideration that cultural history is an ever raising of the stakes in which we become more capable of both imagining and deferring violence.

Any tabulation of the winners and losers, the pros and cons of violent films, will be incomplete in the short run. And in the long run, humanity survives, or maybe not. The story ain't over yet...the show goes on...

Athos said...

Thanks, truepeers, for your thoughtful comment. I will provisionally agree with you that "sacrificial violence does work," but only insofar as Girard says that the gospel has been at work in history these 2,000 years. The effect of this has been to decrease the effectiveness of the primitive Sacred's ability to reconvene socially and psychologically ... at least in cultures influenced by the gospel.

For what it is worth, I do not subscribe to Gans' GA deferential theory. His originary scene is very different than Girard's.

I do not agree that a "violent film will both promote and defer them." "No amount of Bacchic revel will defile" said a simpleton so-depicted by Euripides in THE BACCHAE. His point was that it WOULD. Practicing via video games how to first-person shoot, rob, mame, etc. is not advisable. (I may be stepping on toes here.)

Self-consciousness? Okay. But I think I'd say, again, it is the effect of the gospel: a moral hangover, if you will. So, should more violent films be produced to raise self-consciousness of this kind? Hmmm.

Thanks again for the feedback.

truepeers said...

The Gospel story is true. And yet it does not put an end to our need for stories. Modern man can't seem to sustain freedoms and market competitions without an explosion of novels, plays, films, football games, etc. etc. I've never played those video games, and I'd tell a youngster he was wasting his time, giving in to base desires; and yet do I really believe that all the violent movies I've watched were simply a form of giving in?

There's a fantastically successful evangelical businessman in my neck of the woods, Jimmy Pattison, who seems to own half of British Columbia. One factoid I found fascinating about him in a magazine bio some years ago was his claim to have only watched one movie in his entire life (and he's no spring chicken): a mafia film: he needed to understand the mindset of a certain competitor, he claimed.

I'm not sure whether I believe it. I only wish, though only some of the time, that I could be so focussed on work and exchange that I didn't need the sacrificial theatre of the movies to get along; but I do...

Athos said...

Again, thank you for the great feedback. As Porthos and Aramis here may tell you, I have lauded violent movies before (if you scan my profile you will see that); specifically, for example, Children of Men and Excaliber.

IMO, yes, one may have one's violent impulses siphoned off as it were by viewing such films. But in doing so, one does what the partakers of the Roman Circus did; namely, have a "hit" of the bloodthirstiness that is a part of us via the primitive Sacred, our culture and its comcomitant myths, rituals, and prohibitions (as per Girard).

So the cinema becomes a temple for the primitive Sacred where we can "get our rocks off" once a week or so ... while we go dutifully to Church on Sunday.

This is exactly what the OT prophets condemned of their fellow Israelites: the notion that they could be faithfu to YHWH and go to "prayer meeting" at the fertility cults and high places on Wednesday night (so to speak).

Trouble is, I doubt that those who go to The Devil's Rejects, SAW I / II / III etc. ARE going to Church. More than likely they are turning inexorably into neo-pagans ... or their children are.

That's my take. Thanks again.

David Nybakke said...

Great feedback there Truepeers as well as Athos' comebacks. I think that what we are most blind to is the generative nature of violence and the primative sacred that Ath points out. Just stop and follow Girard's threads. Read Bob Hamerton-Kelly works. Give Gil Bailie your true and honest attention. Breaking the violence must be understood at the generational level where faith, hope and love are our only means of getting there.

truepeers said...

Thanks for the kind words, guys. Athos, is it you who coined the tag, one of my favorites, "scimitar studies"? It well presents your point here: it is the believer in the Gospel truth who can take in the pagan sacrificers, academic and otherwise, in just the right light.

Keep up the good work.

Porthos said...

Welcome to the 'Teers blog, Truepeers. Don't make a stranger of yourself.

Athos said...

Sorry so long it getting back, truepeers. Yes, I coined "Scimitar Studies" over at my Chronicles of Atlantis blog. The primitive Sacred is still an overwhelming influence in Islam, with glimmers of inbreaking of the Paraklete here and there.

If interested, I penned a fictional piece, The Dionysus Mandate, that gives a didactic and, I hope, entertaining approach to the resurgent neo-pagan in the West from a Girardian pov. A concomitant Girardian take on Islam is still to be written. Any takers?