Monday, February 14, 2011

The Right Questions--Blood Meridian and the American War Cycle

As we’ve looked at the Judge’s famous “War is God” speech in Blood Meridian and basically agreed that while his (perversion of) Nietzschean philosophy may or may not be the most ethically sound outlook, his conception of war is a fairly accurate description of the way we conceive of war—if not exactly the way it actually is. He claims, “War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence.” Following the mystical subtext of the novel, he proclaims war to be God, as according to gnostic understanding of the divine, God is that which is unified.

Now this seems to be a monstrous extension of occult logic, but nevertheless, it seems right to say that war creates an egregore, meaning an aggregation of a group’s collective will which then “takes a life of its own.” Not so much that war creates real deities, but that the identities of the participants do get subsumed in the greater Will of the “war effort.” And even if this is inaccurate, we don’t treat it as such, creating monsters out of the collective ideologies of our enemies. The Nazi Party. Radical Islam. The Mongolian Hordes. Each of these enemies certainly embodies physical elements that are particular, but more so, they embody an ideology that casts our conceptions of individuals on the enemy side in a new light—that they are merely the mindless supplicants carrying out the will of their egregore. We ignore the very real possibility that not everyone who goes to war does so because he identifies with an ideology, and that even he does, that doesn’t mean that he’s any less human and shouldn’t be reduced to the sum of his beliefs.

After the September 11 attacks, we all got to witness as over-night, our nation became obsessed with the threat of terrorist attack at the hands of Muslim extremists. Often, Muslims in America suffered abuse, whether or not they actually agreed with the actions of the terrorists. We equated them with the egregore we were fighting against. The media became so jumbled in the aftermath, that people believed our aggressive entry into Iraq had something to do with 9/11, further attributing the egregore of the terrorists to everyday people in Iraq—people who probably knew as little about us as we did of them, people who were often more concerned with acquiring their daily bread than defeating the “Big Evil.”

Following the bleak logic of Judge Holden, we have an unconquerable urge to know our universe, and when we can’t know something, we destroy it. We cannot know the other, so we destroy him if we can. War is a test of wills, and like any other test of wills, we are fascinated by it. Here’s a link to CNN’s Iraq coverage, here’s Afghanistan, and here’s a great compilation of the 9/11 news footage. There’s much more than this out there. It’s interesting to think that the videos of the planes going into the twin towers shares a lot in common with the violence in Blood Meridian—it is depicted for its own sake. The news shows violent images just to show them to you, to inform you that they exist, and to give you some sort of experience of them mediated through representation. Like in art, sometimes these images intend to outrage or shock, but other times, they’re intended to be shown just for experience of seeing. Why else would we want to watch the destruction of the World Trade Center?

It’s for the knowledge of it happening, and because we can’t be there ourselves. A witness, and as I quoted in my last post, each man is tabernacled, etc, witness, etc. I’m opening up the discussion here for comments on Blood Meridian, politics, and the aesthetics of news violence. I’m not sure I have the answers here, but maybe through discussion, we might at least have the right questions.


  1. My initial reaction to the 9/11 news footage compilation had my curious to where the anchors emotions were. Of course I realized it is their job to stay “on brand” and being strictly informative, stay void of any bias. Nevertheless, in one of the scenes the anchors witness, live on their cameras, the second plane colliding into the other tower. Even watching it today evoked me to think OH SHIT…. Then I read Christopher’s post and saw the parallel between Blood Meridian and the news of 9/11. When reading the novel, I questioned whether I was emotionless to the extreme violence of dead babies and scalped humans. Now I realize that it was never McCarthy’s attempt to stun me as the reader but rather to show me how I would experience it. He does not depict how the kid feels, or what the rest of the gang thinks about scalping Indians; he just gives the reader the facts similar to how a news anchor would.

    After Bush comes on air and addresses the public from Sarasota, the mood drastically changes within the media. It is not until the end of his short speech that he finally address the notion of war by exclaiming that, “terrorism against our nation will not stand.” Immediately he segregates good versus evil. In one corner we have terrorism as the enemy and in the other corner we have America as the nation. Then we have the finally decree of war through his implicit remark of our toleration for attacks on our own soil. This newly created egregore unites the media against terrorism and by the middle of the day the headlines are now “America Under Attack.”

    Up to the point in the novel where the Judge makes his first remarks of War is god, the novel too plays like a newsreel. After his speech however, the reader then begins viewing each small interaction as war rather than accepting it as the true Wild West. Bush plays a similar role in changing the psyche of the United States citizens through his speech on war and payback. Moreover, Bush is the one solely responsibly for shifting the nations and media’s psyche from emotional horror to battle cry just as the Judge shifted the readers perception with his speech for the rest of the novel.

  2. Peter, as much as I hate Bush myself, you can't blame George Bush for everything. I think he did use that rhetoric on TV, but it's not the reason people began to take such a stance against Afghanistan and Muslims. The attacks themselves and the glorified way the news presented it is to blame.

    We know news is a corporation trying to get profits so they have to present it in such a way.

  3. Kevin, I may have assumed too much in that everyone watched the 27 minute newsreel posted by Christopher. Most of the footage is in chronological order and about 11 minutes in and right after Bush's speech, the news headlines make a dramatic shift in their perspective. In respect to George Bush, he serves as the catalyst within the 27 minute clip. I did not mean to generalize across the board but to relate those specific clips to our novel of discussion.

  4. In a world of stylized violence on television and in the movies, scenes of real violence stand out to us. They are authentic and represent an inarguable truth. For example in the Iraqi execution video, we see US soldiers shoot a writhing Iraqi to death. From this video, among other things, we learn what it looks like when someone is shot from a hundred feet away. We also witness genuine reactions from the killers themselves. Movie violence causes us to lose track of what reality looks like, particularly violent reality. In a morbid way, CNN news footage of an execution grounds us and reminds of our own fragility and impermanence.

    On a side note, I found it interesting how they included the morning of the 9/11 footage from the Today Show. It gives you the shivers to watch these happy folk the morning of the disaster: the tension is building and the people have no idea what’s about to happen to them…

  5. The judge recognizes the unity that war makes necessary. The fighting forces need to be in unison if they have hopes of winning. War brings people together. With unity comes purpose and this is why I think our politics and the media behave they way they do. The events of 9/11 obviously pulled at our collective heartstrings. The tragedy for most was not that it was on American soil but just in the sheer terror and unexpectedness of the attacks.
    However, in the aftermath the nationalism that was running rampant made it exceedingly easy to channel this unity into an actual war. The justification for the invasions and such were pointless at the time. Honestly, everyone was so caught up in the patriot zeitgeist that if real reasons were given it wouldn't have changed a thing. We were already united, we just needed to be pointed towards a target. With the media reports of " global terrorism", the upping of security all around America and commercials of unity and steadfastness in the face of tragedy ever created a fever pitch. War was the only outcome possible. War, the enforcer of retribution and revenge, seemed to be the only way to realize that unity. War then proceeded to become the center of American public life possibly to the point of idolatry in the opinion of more pious persons. These events seem to support the world view of the Judge

  6. I disagree with the belief that the TV anchors did not show emotion, as I saw many example of sincere and genuine disbelief. In fact, I believe a majority of the newscasters were incredibly flustered. This is evidenced by one guy saying "good lord" when viewing a live shot of 2 World Trade Center being hit by an airplane. Also, when 1 World Trade Center collapses, another TV anchor completely stops what he was saying and just repeatedly says "oh my god." How can you watch these videos and not get emotional? I admit, when I saw the clip was 27 minutes long, I intended just to skim the video, fast forwarding through certain parts. I couldn't look away though. I felt like I was in my 5th grade classroom again on Long Island watching tragedy strike. Everyone from my town knew someone lost in this terrible tragedy, including myself. We could not look away from the television screen all day on 9/11/01, I remember it very well. Our school was dismissed early, and parents swarmed to Scraggy Hill Elementary School in their minivans to pick up us naive children. When I arrived home at around 10:15 AM, I sat on the couch with my mom, dad, and three younger siblings and watched news coverage frantically until 6 PM. My grandparents lived on the Battery, so my dad spent a majority of the day attempting to reach them, unsuccessfully for awhile (this had us all on edge, but luckily they were reached around 4 PM safe across the Brooklyn Bridge at a restaurant in Park Slope). The live coverage is truly the worst, seeing the second plane crash into 2 World Trade Center was so devastating; I remember losing my breath for awhile when I saw that on 9/11, and I experienced a similar feeling while watching the clip. All in all, this is a terrible American tragedy that we cannot look away from. I couldn't help but watch all 27 minutes of the video, reliving one of the saddest day's of my childhood was almost too much for me to pass up. It's true, America truly is addicted to violence, we cannot look away from the screen.

  7. I also watched these clips with the expectation that I would fast-forward through most of it, but I was quickly entranced by the footage and found myself watching all of it, especially the one on 9/11. I remember watching it with the same kind of “can’t look away” interest when it actually happened as well. Watching planes fly into buildings is normally the kinds of images we only see in Hollywood movies, and when it was first happening when I was in middle school I remember being almost unable to process what was happening as real. I remember television news for a long time afterwards constantly focused on the events and its effect on America’s future. I followed the news with an obsession that I never had before and haven’t had since, at least until the presidential primaries two years ago. There was even an amusing South Park episode I remember where everyone in the episode is glued to the television after 9/11.

    I wonder how things would be different if this type of attack happened in an age without television. Would our reaction as a country be less harsh without images of planes crashing plastered over televisions all across the country? Would we still be fueled by the same kind of national outrage that later on (some would argue) motivated us to go to war with Iraq? Would the 9/11 attacks even occurred in the first place (without television, the symbolic gesture of destroying the World Trade Center, the symbol of American prosperity, might not have nearly the same type of effect desired)? How much can violent images by themselves affect us?

  8. We must kill God. Humans do not understand a pervasive universal intelligence; therefore we must wage war against God. By killing God we can prove we are better than he thinks he is. His arrogance at intervening in our affairs can go on no longer.

    Blood Meridian is mystical but godless. There is a war, but there are many sides. No unity of thought and movement exists. Random violence and incomprehensible actions means there is no unity and God has left the American West.

    News footage and propaganda films try to put people on the same side, but on the front lines randomness still pervades. A roadside bomb could kill at any moment. A rocket could land in Afghanistan and destroy a barracks. Friendly fire kills American troops in Afghanistan, but that footage never makes it to the news media.

  9. I agree with some of the comments which stated that war is indeed in some sick and twisted way, a force that unifies like no other. Off the top of my head, I can cite several things that assert this very same thing. For instance, Mao Zedong and Thomas Jefferson were advocates of "continuous revolution." Mao's words and actions seem to hint at something even more primitive, even more primal that the belief that war unify...the act of violence itself, no matter how simple or how far less complex that it is than war, is equally adept at unification. Perhaps through some overly enthusiastic extrapolation of the timeless axiom "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," one can possibly how violence is ironically fertile for friendship, collaboration, and unity.

    On an unrelated note (with respect to the comment above), the news reports reminded me how jaded society is these days. 9/11 was evidently such a paradigm changing event that we are now divorced from the sense of carefree innocence and hopefulness that I still remain nostalgic for (a sentiment that may or may not be mixed up my longing for the days I could get my homework done without late nights).

  10. There may or may not have been ulterior motives in the media's depiction of the events of 9/11. Regardless of if the footage of the event was shown "just for the experience of seeing", the media fervor surrounding the event created emergent properties that had repercussions beyond those of the event itself.

    Just the mention of "nine-eleven" is enough to invoke a visceral response in most Americans, even today, almost ten years after the fact. It has become far more than simply an act of terrorism against us, rather we see 9/11 as an assault on the very essence of what it is to be American and as a unifying factor against a common enemy - the "terrorists".

    In reality, 9/11 was certainly a tragic event. Many Americans lost their lives and the fact that it happened on American soil brings into question our national security.

    However, in the grand scheme of things, the fervor surrounding 9/11 has had a stronger effect than even the act of terrorism itself. In the war in Iraq, which I do not believe would have started without 9/11, by most accounts somewhere around 100,000 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives, almost 2 orders of magnitude greater than the 3,000 Americans we lost in the World Trade Center. The idea of 9/11 has become an almost political ideal, a cause we can rally around. Some politicians (see Rudolph Giuliani) mention the event at any moment necessary, even if it is unrelated to the topic at hand. It's impossible to speak critically about 9/11 or the government's reaction to the events without a larger vitriolic response.

    The media's sensational response to 9/11 has made it impossible to discuss it in a clear and rational matter. While I certainly feel that it was a tragic moment in American history, I feel that the American's government response to the event, launching two international wars and passing legislature restricting our domestic liberties and privacies in the name of security, was way out of proportion to the losses we experienced in the first place. By acting in such a manner, we are in a way proving Bin Laden's statements about America to be true. Our desire to enforce our will on the rest of the world is part of what sparked the act of terrorism in the first place; I don't see continuing such an attitude towards the outside world is doing anything to resolve the underlying issues that brought on the attack to begin with.

  11. One point I would like to bring up to add to this discussion is people's unaware and subconscious efforts to dehumanize a situation like 9/11. I went through all the previous posts and noted that the terms "9/11" and "World Trade Tower (attacks)" were mentioned 15+ times. But only one mention of "the actual people that lost their lives during 9/11". As humans (specifically as Americans) we try to dehumanize these terms to disassociate ourselves from the massive atrocities of the world. 2,819 is the real number we need to worry about (or the 45 on United 93 or the 125 at the Pentagon). Those specific individuals that lost their lives and their families, friends, parents, etc are the people we should focus on. We cannot lose sight of the fact that my girlfriend from high school will never meet her niece or nephew because her cousin was killed that day. Implicitly, yes, when we say "9/11" everyone remembers the planes hitting the towers, but we need to explicitly related "9/11" to those lost that day.
    As humans we protect ourselves from the personal one on one connection with victims. We do this to protect ourselves. Perhaps the reason the Vietnam memorial in D.C. is so emotional because it makes us see each individual person's name. We should never lose sight of this and remember the tragedy that "9/11" was for our country, was a far greater tragedy for the individuals that lost their lives and their families.

  12. The media does certainly play a big role within the society, especially in the news. Today, everyone is simply just too busy to stop and analyze what it is really telling us. Thus, we take what they give us - at face value- and is engrained in our so called conventional wisdom. For example, vocabulary such as "insurgents" and "terrorist" have negative connotations, and so does the certain video clips that the channels chooses to show the public. Looking back, after 9/11, the news was flooded with images of the twin towers, terrorists and repetitive remarks of terrorism and the middle east. And over time, the paradigm of terrorism and the middle eastern ethnicity fused into one - who is to blame for the formation of such fallacious generalization by the public? logical fallacies? the media? racism?

  13. Judge Holden did say it best: "That which exists without my knowledge exists without my consent". Since war is God, and war is the game men old and young dream about, man therefore has has an invariable want to become or prove himself better than God. In becoming God and holding his devine responsibilities, men must obtain full knowledge of the universe and it's creation. Of course, that is an unsurmountable task, especially when the alternative of annihilating all that is not understood is so much easier.

    The journey of the men of Glanton's gang in "Blood Meridian" can be seen almost as a pilgrimage in proving oneself that he is a master of war, creation(therefore knowledge), and God himself. A majority of the bloodthirsty scalpers scarcely let this purpose cross their minds but The Judge, acting as a prophet, planted some clues.

    The media's initial reactions to the 9/11 attacks seemed more similar to the reactions I had at a young age then I remember. I was in middle school science class at the time when the teacher turned on the television, much against the warnings from the Principal over the PA. I remember not really feeling anything as we watched the coverage in silence. My young mind couldn't comprehend the severity of the events, but mainly, I was not used to viewing real violence. When watching Jurassic Park or The Matrix as a kid, the only violence I had been exposed to had been aesthetic, gory, and stylized. This had been cold, distant, and final. Much like the broadcasters, I remember not panicking, but rather feeling numb.

  14. Going along with what cmc9015 (sorry I don't know your name) says, I think its interesting how (relatively) easily we view the attacks without considering the actual violent action that occurred. When we see the second tower explode with the jet's impact, we think about what a terrible act of terrorism it is, but we don't think about the actual effect of that impact: a 100 ton jet literally pulverized hundreds of innocent people at work. Those who survived the impact near those floors likely burned alive, suffocated by noxious fumes, or were slowly crushed by melting steel. We look at the impact of the plane as the beginning of a terrible day, but we don't think about the insane brutality of the crash itself.

  15. Zahcaythica,

    I think unless we ourselves either see brutal footage of people getting burned alive and suffocated in 3d and somehow are able to feel the excruciating amount of pain they are feeling, we will never truly be able to experience the totality of any act of violence.

    As third party viewers, we get so used to it after a while and we get so numb. So instead, the news has become more of a form of entertainment rather than people watching it to feel raw and brutal emotion. It certainly is a great way to waste time.


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