A Taste for Destruction

Posted: November 13, 2012 in Advertising, Corporatism, Culture, Environment

I made a discomfiting observation in another venue, for which I was roundly criticized as being snarky and discompassionate, namely, that the media and indeed the wider public was delighted, delirious, and drunk over the prospect of destruction by Sandy, the storm that recently washed over the East Coast. (I refuse to adopt any of the colorful names applied to the storm, which are merely marketing.) The excitement before, during, and after the event was palpable. Media outlets and people alike sprang into meaningless action (meaningless especially in the sense of trying to mitigate storm surge) and began chattering like finches. In the aftermath, government and corporate public relations departments lit up like newly activated phone trees, spreaching (my new portmanteau for spreading/preaching) about how well they were managing the crisis, not the least of which was FEMA. After its utter failure responding to Hurricane Katrina, it appears FEMA may have gotten its house in good order and become a valuable resource to the disaster stricken, at least according to reports I have gathered from some credible sources in positions to know.

I would never wish upon people the awful suffering inflicted by our now overexcited mother (Nature), nor do I regard those who knowingly put themselves in harm’s way being struck down with any righteous gratification. But neither am I blind to the irony of so much wailing (why!? WHY!?) by those who lack normal risk aversion. Yes, cozying up to the beach is just as attractive on the Jersey Shore as in Japan and Indonesia. None of these locations can hold back waters known to inundate beaches periodically. (Nor can Venice, Italy, or The Maldives.) Those intervals are shortening, now that the water in the bathtub is simultaneously filling and sloshing. Global warming/climate change has undoubtedly won some converts now that actual series of events provide the proof eggheaded scientific reports and prognostications lack — at least for those blithely unable to extrapolate the obvious.

But even that isn’t really what sticks in the craw. Rather, it’s something I observed once before: our taste for destruction. Bertrand Russell observed that during WWI, the British rail stations were “crowded with soldiers, almost all of them drunk, half of them accompanied by drunken prostitutes, the other half by wives or sweethearts, all despairing, all reckless, all mad … I had supposed that most people liked money better than anything else, but I discovered that they liked destruction even better.” [quoting from John Gray’s Straw Dogs, p. 182] It’s not just TV news reporters stupidly defying gale winds and sideways rain to demonstrate verisimilitude; we all, to varying degrees, seek proving grounds and hardships against which to establish character, riding out the storm(s) if we can. The psychology points somewhere beyond need, beyond heedless, and is perhaps more accurately and succinctly described by Russell: mad.

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Comments
  1. kulturcritic says:

    Super observation, Brutus… with impeccable literary flair!! Sandy kC

  2. javacat says:

    With our language, our technology and our sense of time, humans experience destruction remotely, repeatedly, but do not have direct, visceral experience. It can become an endless loop of storms on the Weather Channel, crimes on the police scanner, killings in the cities.

    How much is human fascination with destruction related to our detachment from it? Non-human animals I’ve observed will be curious about death and struggle, and maybe storms, but once the event is passed, it’s past. There is neither anticipation nor analysis nor review. The events merit attention and action based on the potential for direct effect in the moment.

    Disaster is big media (How many time did we replay the planes crashing into the Towers?). Media needs it to survive, and it will manufacture drama out of the meaningless to fill the screen. Items that would barely cause a ripple in a small town a generation ago get played out big, picked up by large sources such as Fark and bounce back and forth between sites and gain new life on social media.

    I posted on another site about some recent discussions of destruction. One is an interview with Naomi Klein in The Guardian about how large corporations seize the opportunity of natural disasters for profit–not that we should be surprised, but the levels of greed seemed to surpass even what we’ve become accustomed to in this socio-political structure of Western culture. Another was an Orion webinar is about the effects of environmental destruction on the human psyche and emotions.

    Is our taste for destruction something innate, or something learned in the absence of reality?

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. The remoteness you mention is definitely a factor, which leads to variable opinion if you have direct experience with destructive events, as Kathleen’s comment below demonstrates. The idea of destruction (crime, severe storms, terrorism, etc.) as an opportunity for profit is not so removed from war profiteering, IMO. That’s part of the delight I observe. In fact, the thing that really sparked my interest in the taste for destruction was the corporate response to Sandy, which was cheap marketing. The news folks are already way too far gone to deserve my modest approbation for their obvious thrill at living in interesting times, with all the awfulness that phrase conjures.

  3. Your place looks great, Brutus. (I hope you remember me.)
    Bertrand Russell and I disagree. I’ve read a bit of him only because in college I took a course that required giving him due seriousness, which at that age I could fake with a semi-straight face.
    Destruction is never going to excite me as a glorious bash, better than money.
    If the media was hysterical, I missed it: no power. (Then too we don’t watch TV, although my husband sometimes irritates me by “following” the weather.)
    Worse than cold or hunger, worse even than relentless darkness, was my frustration at trying to manage a sheaf of mss. pages with only a headlamp and candles. By the end, I resorted to writing…a sonnet about the hurricane. http://bit.ly/Tr01Wz
    Laugh if you must. It’s the second sonnet I’ve attempted. But unless I’m writing, I’m miserable. When I am writing, I don’t notice how hungry or cold I am; how frustrating it is not being able to see the hand in front of my face; how long it’s been since I’ve washed. No big deal, of course, and there will always be sufferers suffering far worse, but the hurricane here in the concrete canyons of downtown NYC wasn’t exactly Russell’s exultant bash either.

    • Brutus says:

      Your position inside the events is clearly different from mine outside of it. Even though I restrict my media diet to a large degree, I became aware that the hysteria was preposterous — not that people didn’t suffer, just that reporting and responding turned manic. The disruptions to your routine (lacking power) don’t seem to me all that trying, and truth be told, I expect other disruptions as events unfold (months? years?) to be far more severe.

  4. Ivy Mike says:

    Human fascination with ruination is primitive. Even a “gift economy” potlatch was know for its ostentatious destruction.

    “During that week, the chief might burn hundreds of blankets and destroy several canoes…”
    Nature Bulletin No. 509-A
    newton.dep.anl.gov/natbltn/500-599/nb509.htm

    “…personal property is destroyed in a show…”
    wiktionary.org/wiki/potlatch

    “…goods were actually destroyed after being received…Potlatching was made illegal…largely at the urging of missionaries and government agents who considered it ‘a worse than useless custom’ that was seen as wasteful, unproductive, and contrary to civilized values.”
    wikipedia.org/wiki/Potlatch#Potlatch_ban

    If destruction sticks in your craw, it’s because you’re too domesticated.

    Let’s go wild and burn it all down, Brutus! ;)

    • Brutus says:

      You’re definitely in the spirit of things, I see. I’m aware of potlatch (discussed prominently in Straw Dogs, as it happens, the quote source above) but didn’t include it in the post. I also didn’t say so before, but I have this same taste, just wanting to watch things burn. But for me, since I’m an avowed misanthrope, it’s probably more Schadenfreud. I wonder, though, if potlatch isn’t one of those corrective measures intuited by primitives to keep things from getting out of hand, as they have repeatedly with civilizations.

      • Ivy Mike says:

        Indeed, potlatch was a “leveling” measure.

        But there’s a thrill that goes with wanton destruction that isn’t reliant on the misfortune of others. Combine crash derbies, shooting bottles, blowing up stuff. In one of my anthropology books the author speaks of the Indians at potlatch torching trees just to watch them burn.

        Even while singing Kumbaya around a campfire, fire is an enjoyment of an immense destructive force, oh my Prometheus.

        Rise up! gather round
        Rock this place to the ground
        Burn it up let’s go for broke
        Watch the night go up in smoke
        Rock on! Rock on!
        Drive me crazier, no serenade
        No fire brigade, just-a pyromania

        ~Def Leppard | Rock of Ages

      • javacat says:

        I thought the gifting and destruction of gifts was a kind of one-upmanship that conferred status and power, rather than removing that which others might envy or which may denote attachement.

      • Brutus says:

        Potlatch has a variety of motivations, not just one, including the (empty) cachet you note. I was trying to be a little bit positive, but Ivy Mike clearly has me beat with respect to acknowledging the nastiness of destroying things for amusement.

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