Innocence, Perversion, and Abu Ghraib

Article excerpt

In the 2005 Hollywood blockbuster, Mr. & Mrs. Smith-which generated more off-screen heat in the tabloids man on-Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play a couple, John and Jane Smith, whose marriage has lost its spark after only "five or six" years and who rekindle their passion by beating, shooting, and cutting each otiier. The film begins with the couple in therapy reluctant to answer questions about their lac luster marriage, especially about their sex life. In the course of the film we learn that unbeknownst to each other, both are accomplished assassins working for competing companies. They sleep walk through their marriage and everyday lives together like automatons, while their violent killing sprees are executed as manic moments in their otherwise empty lives. The few words they exchange are passionless-until they receive orders from their respective companies to kill each other. Unlike the failed couples therapy mockingly shown at the beginning and end of the film, their brutality toward each other enflames their desires and reinitiates sex and conversation, both of which revolve around violence. Neither loses sleep over their killing sprees; Jane brags that she has lost feeling in three of her fingers and it seems that-outside of their violent mania-neither of them feel much of anything, even for each other. They have become killing machines who abuse others as automatically as they brush their teeth or eat dinner. Their violence is so mechanical that when ordered they turn it on each other without a second thought. And it is their automatic violence mat apparently saves them from their robotic marriage.

Watching this glorification of sadomasochism and sexual violence, I was reminded of the young military personal who used sexualized torture to enhance their sex lives at Abu Ghraib, where one soldier gave another pictures of prisoners forced to simulate sex acts as a birthday present, and pictures of sex between soldiers were interspersed with torture photographs. The idea that abusing others is a form of sexual arousal seems to move easily between the everyday fare of sexual violence and violent sex of Hollywood films and the shocking photographs from Abu Ghraib. Why is one banal and the other shocking? Is it that one is real and the other is fantasy? With reality television and virtual "facts" and virtual personalities on the internet, how can we tell the difference? In fact, don't our fantasies affect our perceptions of reality? And weren't the young soldiers at Abu Ghraib not only following orders to "soften up" the prisoners but also acting out their own fantasies? The border between reality and fantasy is precisely the dangerous terrain of human habitation, filled as it is with hair-triggered landmines, images both virtual and real. With these real and imagined images of sadomasochistic violence, it is as if the only way to give meaning to life has become destroying it, that we only embrace life by denying it to the point of murder and suicide. Abu Ghraib displays a sadistic pleasure in violence toward others to the point of murder. And what of the popularity of "cutting" among young people who ritualistically cut themselves in order to "feel something"? Or think of the kids who play the "hanging game" to see what it feels like to cut off their air supply? These attempts to feel something more intensely are dangerous masochistic practices that can and have led to death.

These sadomasochistic forms of entertainment are symptomatic of a general sense of a loss of purpose or a sense of the meaning of life. Media culture feeds this meaninglessness by turning reality into a spectacle. As a result, we desire more intense experiences, more real experiences. We oscillate between trying to shut off our emotional lives with pharmaceutical drugs-antidepressants and sleeping pills-and channel or net surfing to find alternative realities. Witness the fascination with reality television and live internet webcams. …