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Mon Sep 22 18:17:05 SAST 2014

THE BIG READ: Chaos porn, a love story

Jack Shafer | 02 November, 2012 00:06
A view shows homes devastated by fire and the effects of Hurricane Sandy at the Breezy Point section of the Queens borough of New York
Superstorm Sandy has caused at least 50 deaths and enormous damage to property and infrastructure in the US. Yet something in us looks on with an emotion other than empathy Picture: SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS
Image by: SHANNON STAPLETON / Reuters

Like me, you've probably been flipping from the Weather Channel to CNN with one hand and raking the web with the other, searching for scenes of maximum destruction from Superstorm Sandy.

Long after satisfying your basic news needs about the horrific body counts, power outages, travel advisories and surges of tidal and river water to come, you've probably been loitering around your screens for more.

Somebody tweets about a live video feed of a construction crane gone limp in midtown Manhattan, and we go there. E-mails from friends direct us to videos of vehicles floating through lower Manhattan like derelict bumper cars and the shattering of the Atlantic City boardwalk into toothpicks.

Next up, toppled trees, washed-out rails, flooded streets, subways, and tunnels, and the sinking of HMS Bounty.

Oh, the horror. Pass the popcorn.

Advanced voyeurs (you know who you are) understand that shame, rather than being a deterrent, actually works to reinforce both the urge to look and to share what we've seen. What impels us to watch, to hunger for more disaster and mayhem, and to keep on watching long after we've learned all there is to know?

Wake Forest University English professor Eric Wilson gathers some clues in his new book, Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away.

We never feel more alive than in times of distress, danger, and calamity, Wilson writes, whether we experience it directly or at a televised remove, watch it dramatised in a movie, or read it in a novel.

He cites a psychologist to theorise that our morbid curiosity has an evolutionary function: being well-informed about dangers and potential dangers helps us survive; finding points of empathy through which we can connect with those who have suffered allows us to build lasting bonds.

Wilson discusses the cultural appeal of fairy tales, horror films, and "documentaries" like Faces of Death; he recycles the now standard view that gruesome and graphic stories prepare the young for adulthood; and he reminds us of how Aristotle schooled us in the value of catharsis to explain our fascination with the perverse.

Or is our connection with the macabre more about animal arousal than it is evolution?

Wilson, backed by Kant and Burke, surmises that as long as we can watch from a safe vantage point - but closer the better - we can "undergo a sublime experience" while observing the suffering of others or a catastrophe. I suspect that the sublime experience is a learned one - that the first time you rubberneck a car crash you don't quite understand it but over time, by poking dead cats flattened on the highway and going to your grandmother's open-casket funeral, you eventually get it. From there - at least for boys - emerge new horizons, the delights of setting off firecrackers taped to robin's eggs and of breaking schoolroom windows after hours. As writer PJ O'Rourke once put it, "making things and breaking things" brings the only true joy in life.

When nature builds something as powerful as a hurricane that breaks things in new and inventive ways, how can we not gawk? We're all transported back to the sandpit where we, as young creator-destroyers, obliterated the cities of sand we'd carefully constructed.

Proximity to the action is essential for us to experience the sublime, Wilson argues, and I agree. The internet, 24-hour-news satellites and cheap video cameras have made all disasters local, whether they be tsunamis in Thailand or terrorist attacks in New York and London. Television and the web place us in the comfortable zone between too "far away to feel the rush" and "I'm so damned close I got splattered with blood".

Our appetite for destruction does know limits. One might be wise to decline the offer of viewing a "beheading" video, Wilson writes, unless the viewer can erect a sufficient psychological "buffer" between himself and the images

One way to tame indecipherable images of death is to experience them as a group. I doubt if many witnesses to public hangings, even first-timers, had trouble sleeping the next night - such are the comforts of being a part of a mob.

Another way to suppress the direct power of the images is to add the element of a story to the action, something that nobody seems to have tried to do with beheadings.

If we can tie "a horrific eruption to a coherent narrative, then [we] can understand the terror as part of a larger and purposeful structure", Wilson writes.

Each narration of the September 11 attack s, each new view, helped us integrate the disaster into something more containable.

If you've seen more of the Superstorm Sandy disaster than you really need, you should be ashamed. But not too ashamed. The only thing worse than looking too much is not looking at all. - Reuters

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