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The Tradition of Violence in the United States: A Multidisciplinary Survey (November 2014): Cultural Theories

By Scott Gac

Cultural Theories

Ever since Richard Slotkin famously located violence as a source of national renewal in his 1993 study of frontier literature, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860, cultural explanations for the origin of violence in the United States have attracted much interest.  Central to such approaches are questions of identity—how is it that violence and the American character work together?  Spurred by the attacks of 9/11, Judith Butler in Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence explores the limits and function of public grief.  In Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, Amartya Sen isolates the link between violence and culture to rigid, narrow identities that chase grand ideals.

How do the narrative of violence and the legacy of tragic events influence the present?  In Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History, Cathy Caruth asks whether the violence of an act is located in the physical confrontation with death or the enduring memory of the survivor.  German literary theorist W. G. Sebald, in On the Natural History of Destruction, engages the U.S. bombing of Germany in World War II to follow how war narrative often erases in retrospect the pain and suffering of individuals.  The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence by Susie Linfield also calls for a more direct engagement with the record of violence and suffering situated within the visual records of violent acts.

Drawing on cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and history, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined sets forth the idea that changes in culture and material in the Western world—in particular, a greater sensitivity to trauma associated with pain, suffering, and death—has led to a modernity marked by widespread declines in violence.  Such a notion is countered by those focused on the U.S. context.  Christopher B. Strain, who uses a sociological and psychological approach in Reload: Rethinking Violence in American Life, maintains that violence is endemic to the United States, thanks to notions of masculinity, violence shown in entertainment and media, and the tie between gun access and acts of violence.  Chandan Reddy, author of Freedom with Violence: Race, Sexuality, and the US State, directs readers to the pervasive military mode of thinking that directs discussions about freedom and state violence in U.S. culture.

Works Cited