The Abject Failure of Humanity’s “Promise”

In Salon there is this horrifying little piece (“Let’s Watch a Murder“) regarding the popularity of reality horror-porn.  Here’s how it begins:

The YouTube video shows Robert, a 28-year-old from Dayton, Ohio, grimace and light up a cigarette. Moments later, he’s gagging — and it isn’t from the smoke. It’s what is unfolding before his eyes.

You can see the glow of his computer screen reflected in his glasses — and even make out the black square of a video player against a web site’s white backdrop — but, mercifully, you can’t see what’s happening in the clip he’s watching. His curled upper lip and bulging eyes only hint at the brand of extreme horror that he’s consuming. It’s far worse than most can imagine: Murder, dismemberment, necrophilia and cannibalism — all in a 10-minute clip sickeningly titled, “1 Lunatic, 1 Ice Pick.” (Allow me to cop to my personal limits here: I have not watched the video, but I have listened to YouTubers’ detailed descriptions of what takes place in it.)

The video is believed to show Luka Rocco Magnotta allegedly murdering his former lover, 33-year-old Lin Jun, whose torso was found late last month in a suitcase outside the recently arrested 29-year-old’s Montreal apartment. Police believe it was published online by Magnotta himself, shortly before he fled the country. Despite being taken down from many online venues, the clip has found a significant Internet audience.

Here’s some of the middle:

Since Aristotle’s time, scientists have tried to answer the basic question of why people are drawn to gruesome things, says Norman Holland, a professor emeritus at the University of Florida who specializes in “the psychology of the arts.” “The answer, or an answer, is that your feelings, like the feeling of disgust or horror in watching this video, is quite separate, it’s a much lower system in your brain, than the cognitive knowledge that this is a real person being hurt,” he says. “We take pleasure in having our emotions stimulated if there are no real-world consequences” — for us, the viewer. That explains, in part, why we enjoy watching realistic horror movies.

As Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, says, “There’s an arousal value that’s involved in this high stimulation from the gore and the horror and a lot of things on the Internet,” he says. “If you add in more sensory information, like screaming, it often becomes even more interesting.”

Here’s an odd rationale (odd to me):

Related to that exploration of “the dark side,” it’s clear many of the viewers see the video as reflecting an unrecognized truth about the world. As one commenter wrote, “I’m proud of the fact that it shows true reality not sugarcoating the whole world as a good place.” The owner of Best Gore, Mark Marek, wrote on the site, ”It is a sad reminder that things far worse than any of us would ever imagine really take place in our neighborhoods. It is a sickening reflection of who we, as a human race have become.”

Proud?  Were you in need of a sad reminder that the culture of mindless desire creation has yielded monsters who both observe and participate in these acts?

Here’s the end:

Eric Wilson, author of “Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away,” says,…“It is satisfying to express unambiguous moral disdain in an otherwise ambiguous world, especially when we share this moral disdain with millions of others also outraged by the crime,” he says. “So, there is a contradiction here — we get a physiological thrill from watching violence — in other words, we get pleasure from the horror — while at the same time we are repulsed by the same violence, keen on denouncing it.”

Of course, the ultimate question is whether it’s moral to watch a video like “1 Lunatic, 1 Ice Pick.” “The answer, I think, revolves around intention,” says Wilson. “If someone is watching the gore only for the cheap physiological thrill, then he risks simply reducing the suffering of others to objects of his own selfish pleasure. But if we watch the gore to try to understand our own darkness or to think about the nature of good and evil, then we are clearly expressing nobler intentions.”

Watching gore with noble intentions…interesting.  Like Eric Wilson explaining his “professional” interest (his career and his capitalizing intentions?) would be a kind of nobility?

This, to me, is about as messed up as things get.  Would we describe watching videos of starving children as “noble?”  Or even think of it as a thing that should be done?

I think this is an extreme (but apparently a very NORMAL) example of why the “human” must find it’s highest good in saying NO to all of the things that we “can” do.  Because we can, we should not.  That seems to me the best moral stance I can come up with.

I would like to offer a section from Melville’s first novel, Typee, (1846)–Chapter 17 (the center of the book)–to contrast to this.  Melville’s protagonist is a captive among a tribe on the Island of Nuka Hiva (one of the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific).  In this bit he compares the fruits of one type of human organization (tribal, “uncivilized) with another (Western, “enlightened”).

Think of “Best Gore” as what has come of Enlightenment as you read the below.  Think of pharmaceuticals for “erectile dysfunction” and “unhappiness.”  Think of drones piloted from game consoles in New Mexico killing women and children 9,000 miles away.  Think of Harvard University owning African land in order to control water tables.  Think of children in India picking through toxic electronics deemed Western garbage (“outsourced waste management”) to find recyclable and valuable metals in minute quantities. Think of Dresden.  Think of Hiroshima…Nagasaki.  Cambodia, Vietnam.  Think of children as sex slaves.  Think of the genocide of indigenous populations in North America.

Thanks for the reminder murder sites.  I apparently had been misled to believe that human populations couldn’t be turned into terrifyingly evil creatures by the men who govern them by law, war or commerce.

What conception of nobility is this?


In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of life, though few and simple, are spread over a great extent, and are unalloyed; but Civilization, for every advantage she imparts, holds a hundred evils in reserve;—the heart-burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissentions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life, which make up in units the swelling aggregate of human misery, are unknown among these unsophisticated people.

But it will be urged that these shocking unprincipled wretches are cannibals. Very true; and a rather bad trait in their character it must be allowed. But they are such only when they seek to gratify the passion of revenge upon their enemies; and I ask whether the mere eating of human flesh so very far exceeds in barbarity that custom which only a few years since was practised in enlightened England:—a convicted traitor, perhaps a man found guilty of honesty, patriotism, and suchlike heinous crimes, had his head lopped off with a huge axe, his bowels dragged out and thrown into a fire; while his body, carved into four quarters, was with his head exposed upon pikes, and permitted to rot and fester among the public haunts of men!

The fiend-like skill we display in the invention of all manner of death-dealing engines, the vindictiveness with which we carry on our wars, and the misery and desolation that follow in their train, are enough of themselves to distinguish the white civilized man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth.

His remorseless cruelty is seen in many of the institutions of our own favoured land. There is one in particular lately adopted in one of the States of the Union, which purports to have been dictated by the most merciful considerations. To destroy our malefactors piece-meal, drying up in their veins, drop by drop, the blood we are too chicken-hearted to shed by a single blow which would at once put a period to their sufferings, is deemed to be infinitely preferable to the old-fashioned punishment of gibbeting—much less annoying to the victim, and more in accordance with the refined spirit of the age; and yet how feeble is all language to describe the horrors we inflict upon these wretches, whom we mason up in the cells of our prisons, and condemn to perpetual solitude in the very heart of our population.

But it is needless to multiply the examples of civilized barbarity; they far exceed in the amount of misery they cause the crimes which we regard with such abhorrence in our less enlightened fellow-creatures.

The term ‘Savage’ is, I conceive, often misapplied, and indeed, when I consider the vices, cruelties, and enormities of every kind that spring up in the tainted atmosphere of a feverish civilization, I am inclined to think that so far as the relative wickedness of the parties is concerned, four or five Marquesan Islanders sent to the United States as Missionaries might be quite as useful as an equal number of Americans despatched to the Islands in a similar capacity.

I once heard it given as an instance of the frightful depravity of a certain tribe in the Pacific that they had no word in their language to express the idea of virtue. The assertion was unfounded; but were it otherwise, it might be met by stating that their language is almost entirely destitute of terms to express the delightful ideas conveyed by our endless catalogue of civilized crimes.

In the altered frame of mind to which I have referred, every object that presented itself to my notice in the valley struck me in a new light, and the opportunities I now enjoyed of observing the manners of its inmates, tended to strengthen my favourable impressions. One peculiarity that fixed my admiration was the perpetual hilarity reigning through the whole extent of the vale.

There seemed to be no cares, griefs, troubles, or vexations, in all Typee. The hours tripped along as gaily as the laughing couples down a country dance.

There were none of those thousand sources of irritation that the ingenuity of civilized man has created to mar his own felicity. There were no foreclosures of mortgages, no protested notes, no bills payable, no debts of honour in Typee; no unreasonable tailors and shoemakers perversely bent on being paid; no duns of any description and battery attorneys, to foment discord, backing their clients up to a quarrel, and then knocking their heads together; no poor relations, everlastingly occupying the spare bed-chamber, and diminishing the elbow room at the family table; no destitute widows with their children starving on the cold charities of the world; no beggars; no debtors’ prisons; no proud and hard-hearted nabobs in Typee; or to sum up all in one word—no Money! ‘That root of all evil’ was not to be found in the valley.

In this secluded abode of happiness there were no cross old women, no cruel step-dames, no withered spinsters, no lovesick maidens, no sour old bachelors, no inattentive husbands, no melancholy young men, no blubbering youngsters, and no squalling brats. All was mirth, fun and high good humour

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. Blue devils, hypochondria, and doleful dumps, went and hid themselves among the nooks and crannies of the rocks.

Here you would see a parcel of children frolicking together the live-long day, and no quarrelling, no contention, among them. The same number in our own land could not have played together for the space of an hour without biting or scratching one another. There you might have seen a throng of young females, not filled with envyings of each other’s charms, nor displaying the ridiculous affectations of gentility, nor yet moving in whalebone corsets, like so many automatons, but free, inartificially happy, and unconstrained.


photo credit: Project Canterbury

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  1. focus June 10, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    The passage from Melville is fantastic–and those are words I never expected to write–and it reads as if it could be written today (other than the whalebone corsets, replaced by Spanx no doubt.)

  2. Douglas Storm June 10, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    Ah, now you might give due respect to our greatest author!


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