I recently started listening to a podcast called writing excuses. It’s aimed at aspiring genre (sifi/fantasy/horror ect.) writers, but it’s a lot of fun to listen to even if you have no intention of ever writing anything that is not required for class. One of my favorite episodes is the one on violence. The podcasters (who are all published authors) talk about how they portray violence in their books. It’s only 15 min long, you should go listen to it before continuing.
The podcasters end up talking about the consequences of violence in their books more than the violence itself. They argue that it is the exploration of how violence affects characters and situations that is compelling to the reader. This can be thought of in terms of Arendt’s definition of violence. She claims that violence is instrumental. It must have a purpose and cannot be an end in itself. Whether violence will work towards or against its intended purpose is never clear because it is part of human action which, according to Arendt, is always unpredictable. When the podcasters explore the possible consequences of violence, they are examining whether or not it achieved its intended goal and what some of the possible unintended effects could be.
Early in the podcast, the authors talk about an incredibly violent scene form the Matrix. They said it was beautifully choreographed and fun to watch, but it bothered them because it had no consequences. From an Arendtian point of view, this is an example of violence that is not being used instrumentally. Because the violence has no goal (Okay, so you can argue that the goal is to save Morpheus, but surly they could have found a more desecrate way into the building.) it has become an end in itself. The movie fails to acknowledge any consequences of using violence this way. The violence stops feeling real to the viewer and becomes no more compelling than a well choreographed dance.
This is actually a general trend of how violence is used in movies, video games, and cartoons. None of the characters react realistically in the story, so neither does the viewer/gamer/reader. In these situations, violence is no longer being acknowledged as an action in the Arendtian sense of the word. It is being used only for visual appeal (like a light show) and has no real effect other than to change the color of the walls or carpet.
When violence is acknowledged as an action, it can change things. It has consequences that can then be explored. The fun thing about reading (and probably writing) books (or movies/games/TV shows) is that you can explore many different possible reactions to violence. The more a reader can identify with, or at least understand, a characters response, the more compelling that character and the situation they are in will be.