Letters : Staff : 2007 : To the Staff 13/04/2007

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Date: Apr 13, 2007
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From rich619

Why do you feel the need to read the Civil War storyline through the lens of [Richard] Slotkin [and his book Regeneration Through Violence]?

Slotkin's analysis of violence as a centerpiece for American cultural development has always been understandable. It allows for the expression of the American character, etc. But, a few points I would like to raise:

1. Is Slotkin's analysis not overly reliant on [Frederick Jackson] Turner's methodology? Is Slotkin's work really just a reevaluation of the frontier in American life? Do you really think it has explanatory value as a seventeenth and eighteenth century methodology? ...More to the point, it is very hard to take Slotkin's work seriously in the face of the bomb. One could argue that America's deployment of the nuclear weapon just confirms his point - that the use of such violent weapons is a hallmark of how Americans exercise power and create a moral character. But, a number of historians, cultural critics, theologians, and scientists have all argued that the nuclear weapons has to result in a fundamental paradigm shift (yes I am being Kuhnian). God, for example, must move from he to she. Apocalyptic imagery becomes part of the American cultural scene, in which human violence is no longer regenerating for humans, but becomes the means to a larger biblical regeneration, with global dimensions. Etc.

2. More to the point - you seem to have blithely jumped over the regeneration in examining the conflict between Stark and Rogers. They use violence as an expression of such frustration, and they use violence to attempt to reach a new conclusion (a la Fight Club). And yet, say in Fight Club, there is regeneration - a new world order. At the end of the book you are examining, there does not seem to be any conclusion. Is the fight not more a manifestation of the futility of violence?

Part of this leads me to wonder - why is there such a strong connection between America and violence - or put a better way, why do outsiders perceive the American culture as so much more violent? We can grant that there is considerable quantitative evidence - gun deaths, homicides, military conflict, a morally reprehensible past; but have not other countries possessed their own relationship to violence - that violence was just a crucial, say to the development of the Canadian frontier? Some historians of honor argue that human-on-human violence is actually a response to environmental violence (laughing in death's face), and environmental violence is a global reality. See anything from the brilliant analysis by some European historian of "Little Red Riding Hood" (the name escapes m at the moment), and Ginzburg's varied works, through current expressions of violence in Southeast Asia. Note that this is not a defense of America, but I wonder if the Slotkin's notion that violence can be used as a culturally renewing force is actually more global than he initially sees it.

If I'm reading you right, you're arguing something like the following:

Slotkin says that in American culture, from its earliest roots, violence is defined as a savage activity. Yet civilized people must go among savages and master violence, becoming even more proficient in violence than the savages are, precisely so that they can defend civilization against savage people. By mastering violence civilized people can overcome their own weakness and corruption and become whole and healthy, that is, regenerated through violence. And finally Slotkin says that this motif of civilized people using violence to regenerate themselves is a motif throughout American popular culture, from the seventeenth century up to the present day... not least, adds Miller, in American comic books.

But, you go on to say, Slotkin's analysis doesn't really fit with what we know about seventeenth- and eighteenth-century popular culture [which emphasized Puritan themes of endurance in the face of savage, or diabolical, affliction]. Nor does it fit with late twentieth-century popular culture, which was fundamentally transformed by the advent of nuclear weapons: in a nuclear age, violence can only be redemptive on a global or universal scale, because that's the theatre where nukes could be used. There is no local use of nukes, not in a Cold War setting, and so regenerative violence cannot be local either.

And, moreover, what regeneration is there in Stark and Rogers' fistfight? At the end nothing is resolved. Isn't that, you suggest, the point: that their fight in the end solves nothing, underscoring the pointlessness of violence?

Finally, you ask, why do you, a non-American, seem so fixated on the role of violence in American popular culture? Surely the idea that violence can be honorable or revitalizing is a feature of many other cultures, Canadian and European alike. Cast out the beam in your own eye, you seem to suggest, before pointing to the mote in your American neighbour's.

Let's take those in turn:

Slotkin's analysis is a poor fit with American popular culture. This is not the forum to debate whether Slotkin's take on Turner, or on Puritan captivity narratives is correct (though I think it is). And as for the twentieth century, the event that prompted the most reflection and repudiation of the redemptive power of violence was not the advent of nuclear weapons but rather the costly and futile wars in Southeast Asia. The idea of redemptive violence, and the civilized man who fights like a savage to defend civilization, made a hell of a comeback in the post-Vietnam years. Think Rambo II, think the Death Wish movies and their innumerable knockoffs, think the resurgence of horror fiction and films in the 1970s and '80s, think of the defense of American military activity in Cuba in the film A Few Good Men, and above all, think of the defences of torture promulgated in the wake of revelations of American practice in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Civilized men must torture-- must behave like savages-- to defend civilization from savagery. And we were told this as recently as last year.

What regeneration is there in Stark and Rogers' fistfight? There isn't any, which is one reason I found the inclusion of a fight scene so forced. I think it was included more to satisfy the external demand that every comic book must have a fight scene, rather than for any reason internal to the story. But if the fight isn't regenerative, it is at least cathartic: after it's over, the two men can leave peacefully. Apparently the only way for the two of them to overcome their individual rage and frustration was to punch each other, and punching does help in that regard. My point is, the story presents the resolution the two men reach, namely a fistfight, as an unexceptional and natural outcome. Catharsis through violence is the appropriate and natural way forward: I really do think there is something peculiarly American at work here.

But don't the Canadian and British popular-culture traditions, to name just two, have a similar attitude towards violence? Not at all. I can't speak to the British tradition, but Canadian popular culture has always emphasized the primal conflict as being between human being and nature, not human being and human being. Maraget Atwood delineated this some time ago: American stories are about man vs. man, with the heroic man winning. Canadian stories are about man vs. nature, with nature winning. Perhaps, she theorized, because the Canadian environment was so much harsher than the American one, Canadian stories emphasized the need for communal solidarity, everyone pulling together to defend the community against the violence of nature. And typically nature wins, destroying community in spite of man's best efforts. There's no place for internal violence here in the face of an overwhelming outside danger. American popular culture is so, well, popular in Canada precisely because it strikes a note of optimism that we can't muster for ourselves: where Americans struggle against each other for reward, Canadians huddle together against the dark and cold.

My point here is not that Canadian popular culture is healthier or more praiseworthy than American popular culture-- clearly we here in the Great White North have our own demons to wrestle with-- but that regenerative violence does indeed hold a place in American popular culture that is by no means universal. I repeat: the final fistfight between Rogers and Stark struck many American readers, and the writer also, as a reasonable outcome, or so at least I imagine. But it struck this non-American reader as totally ludicrous, and wholly at odds with the reasoned debate that had been going on just before.

So yes, despite your objections, I continue to think that Richard Slotkin's point about Americans having a peculiar attitude towards violence stands, and that we can see it at work in this issue. Thanks for writing!