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MIT Comparative Media Studies - Journal

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In which we learn about cross-posting. [Dec. 13th, 2005|08:50 pm]
MIT Comparative Media Studies - Journal


I wrote this for class, and then decided I'd exploit that fact to rectify my dearth of recent LJ posts. Cross-posted to my personal journal, where it appears in an inconsiderate, non-cut fashion.

Peter Rauch
Major Media Texts
Parting Salvo

I spent most of this past weekend working on final projects, presentations, or design documents. What free time I had I spent mostly reading C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity and playing The Punisher. At the intersection of these two texts lies a particularly vicious moral ambiguity. As Augustine and Joss Whedon ably remind us, dualism is a load of crap. Good is a thing in itself, elemental substance, the first of all things moral. Evil is secondary, a perversion of good with no essence of its own. There is good without evil, but there is no evil without good. Good begets evil, and evil begets politics.

Which brings us, and the world in general, to torture. The response to the Abu Ghraib has been surprisingly quiet in America, but it's garnered much more attention than allegations of similar abuses at Guantanamo Bay and in the CIA's Eastern European prisons. Part of this disparity can be explained by the lack of photographic evidence, and the government's steadfast denials that the actions taken against prisoners in Abu Ghraib were any kind of organized policy. The photos, damning as they are, do not depict torture as it is popularly understood, and the most shocking details have thus far been confined to text: there are many photographs of prisoners being frightened or humiliated, but comparatively few showing the corpses of those killed, intentionally or accidentally, during interrogation. Consequently, on right-wing blogs, the discussion is not centered on whether or not torture can be justified, but whether anything serious enough to be labelled “torture” has actually taken place. Believing in Lynndie England allows people to pretend Manadel al-Jamadi, the “iceman” of the Abu Ghraib photographs, wasn't real.

There is a good deal of cognitive dissonance going on here, it's not an accident that those who most loudly claim the allegations of torture are false tend to oppose laws banning the use of torture on enemy combatants. This is not to say that those who condone torture are abominably amoral, for their moral perspective on war is highly consistent: if it's ok to kill people, why is it not ok to hurt them? Any talk of a social contract and enforceable rules seems out of place in a context where people are rewarded for killing each other. Humanity has a rich tradition of ethical fine-tuning governing rules of war, with common elements found in all Abrahamic faiths—I read about that between classes when I didn't have access to Mere Christianity or The Punisher—yet there seem to be few agreed-upon rules governing the moral mathematics of torture. How cruel, vicious and sadistic can a human being be and still serve the greater good? Is one tortured suspect acceptable to save a dozen lives? Our popular culture seems to think so; our popular media isn't so sure. People say they remain silent because they doubt there's anything to speak up about, and in the meantime, a much more fundamental moral debate about the morality of cruelty itself goes unspoken. A debate as abstract at this one makes for very poor television, so we endlessly carp about what was and wasn't photographed and what sources are and aren't reliable. It's happening, and we all know it's happening, but if it can't be put on TV, it's hardly real enough to act on.

Though they make for bad TV, abstract debates work pretty well in the context of fiction. The Punisher is a comic book character created in the 70s, a heavily armed vigilante named Frank Castle with no superpowers who provides a counterpoint to the supernatural strength and comparative moral clarity of the rest of the Marvel universe. The character, as created, was profoundly stupid and uninteresting, until Garth Ennis, an Irish comic writer best known for the unapologetically anti-religious Preacher, took over the character several years ago and revamped him from the ground up. No longer a raging, vengeful demon with an extreme view of justice, Frank moves entirely beyond justice and vengeance, into an area no moral philosophy can entirely pin down. He doesn't kill to balance the scales, he doesn't kill to prevent future murders, and he doesn't kill to protect people. He doesn't kill because he likes it, although at times it appears he does. He doesn't kill because he's angry, although he is. He kills because he believes morality itself is an illusion that breaks apart when touched. He doesn't think that what he does is justified, because he doesn't believe in justice. He kills murderers and rapists because he hates people who kill and rape, and he refuses to engage in a fictional, abstract debate about the social and ethical implications. He acts on a calm, patient, unadulterated will, but can't even be a Nietzschean, since then he'd have to believe he were a “good” person for rejecting slave morality.

Somehow, these elements ended up on the cutting room floor when Marvel's film division made a summer action film out of the series, and one might have expected they'd also be left out of the Punisher videogame tied to its release. I'm sure they tried; the game's filmic components paint a semi-sadistic avenging angel in broad strokes. The gameplay itself—which, my thesis will argue, intertwines itself with non-interactive narrative elements to create the game's ethical viewpoint—is just as black as the comic that inspired it. Torture (“interrogation”) is an integral part of the game experience, one that is encouraged and effectively required to complete the game at levels both narrative (Frank needs information) and ludic (the points yielded from successful interrogation can be traded for weapon and ability upgrades). The methods of torture are numerous, varied, and at times creative, but they are uniformly brutal and sickening, and as a player I become complicit in them. They turn my stomach, but I go on, because the rules of the game demand it. And when I screw up—when I accidentally shoot an antagonist in the face or burn him to death in a crematorium because my finger slipped on the analog stick—my shock at the unexpected violence is less than my disappointment at my failure as a player and the subsequent information and point penalty.

The Punisher, of course, is fiction. But it presents a compelling ethical reality that terrifies me even as I actively participate in it. (I can only speak for me; maybe a lot of people just like killing people in horrible ways over and over and over again.) Games, abstracted from reality, embody systems of ethics much simpler than those of “real” life, and it's not that different from any professional or ritual activity more concerned with correct/incorrect than right/wrong. As much as Christian conservatives like to rail against the evils of “situational ethics,” it's a concept they're going to need to be familiar with soon. If there is any objective moral standard to be found, it must categorically reject torture, and it must not hide behind practicality to do so.

That was long.

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