Guns, A Girl, And "The Real"

Guns The recent shooting tragedies in our country have inevitably and quite importantly fueled cultural and political debates about gun control and related policies. Like many people,  I've found myself questioning "what can be done?" and perhaps more importantly, "who is to blame?"  A profound sense of collective helpless and a desire to understand an otherwise senseless event undoubtedly precipitate this instinct to point fingers. Beyond the obvious perpetrator (the shooter), lawmakers, loose regulation policies, and even violent video game manufacturers (among others) have been subjected to scrutiny. And these targets, indeed, seem warranted. Or at least that was my first thought.

Allow me to be frank: I'm pro gun control. I firmly believe in the right to bear arms, but I also feel strongly that the assault weapons ban should be reinstated. I believe in stricter regulations and in more extensive background checks. In many ways, I believe we are right to blame lawmakers and policies, and I hope that in doing so we might produce fruitful political dialogue and serious reform. But here's where I struggle: are we right to fault video game manufacturers or call for a ban on such material?

I expect this is a fraught question and one which incites strong opinions on both sides. Here's the thing - I know that studies have shown that violent video games have been linked to increased aggression in users and that there have been studies to the contrary. I understand it's difficult to make a case for causation, though there is a good chance that there is correlation. But I'd like to consider it from a slightly different perspective: not the psychological, but the aesthetic. And more specifically: Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (and in the interest of full disclosure: it's one of my all-time favorite books).

"A Girl" (Or the Lolita Lens)

Lolita. Perhaps Nabokov's most controversial work, Lolita is (to summarize) the story of a narrator, Humbert Humbert and his love of the "nymphet" (his 13-year-old stepdaughter) Lolita. I've always felt odd upon declaring that I love this book, as its premise is, to say the least, superficially unsettling. Initially, I was drawn to Nabokov's work for its sensuous language, the dazzling sentences and wordplay, prose that is so startling and rare that's it really poetic. And the pleasure of pure language, as I've discovered upon further reading and reflection, is certainly Nabokov's end game. Still, and  despite some of Nabokov's own slightly disingenuous protestations, there's more to it than mere words.

Last year, I re-read Lolita in one of my favorite graduate seminars called "Contemporary Issues in the Arts" with Dr. Wendy Steiner (who I'm convinced is a genius and who profoundly influenced the ideas that led to this post). In that course we discussed issues in modern and postmodern work that fall in the intersection of ethics and aesthetics (the Culture Wars over pornography in the 1980s, for instance, and the Mapplethorpe Affair). For my final paper in the course, I chose to write about  Lolita. Specifically, I wanted to discuss the idea that the book is controversial not because it depicts an illicit, incestuous affair, but because we (the public) invest or supplant this fabricated, artistic rendering of the affair with its "real world" implications. Or, as I wrote then:

All of this, then, is to suggest that the ethically contentious reading of Lolita might well be founded on its own kind of fiction. It is not only a (mis)construed version, a fantastical image, of the characters and situations that Nabokov so masterfully evokes, but also an implicit assumption that these invented characters and situations have corollaries outside the bounds of literature and can be read in light of “real world” laws and moral convictions. Of course, this is not to argue that pedophiles do not exist in the “real world” or that the situations Nabokov describes would be less than morally and legally reprehensible in real life. Rather, it is to say that there seems to have been an unfortunate and haphazard blurring between what is real and what is simply a product of lurid artistic imagination – Nabokov’s– in the novel’s critical and popular reception. [...] The effect of such blurring manifests itself in a widespread fear that the obscenity represented in art will become or might already be a model of obscene “real world” behavior. This fear is undeniably misguided.

The point, as I argue in the paper, is that "art" is of necessity a realm insulated from legal action, as it is not intended to model "real world" behavior," but merely to exist in its own artifice. In fact, it is an issue that has been contended several times in the Supreme Court, and in the landmark case of Roth vs. Us in 1957, Justice William Brennan upheld  a separation, noting specifically that "obscenity" in artwork should be held outside legal consideration and litigation.

Which ultimately brings me back to video games. (Did you think I'd forgotten?)

"The Real"

The more I began to think about it, the more convinced I became that the controversy about video games today has to be viewed through the Lolita lens. So here it is: Lolita is an artwork whose putative obscenity is not meant to be taken seriously in light of real world legal ramifications. Likewise, video games are forms of art (and I fundamentally think it would be unfair to claim otherwise) whose violence is not meant to be a model for real world behavior. That is to say, video game manufacturers are as much at fault for real world shooting incidents as Nabokov is for real world pedophilia (not very).

Of course, the case of video games may be somewhat different because it involves simulation ("actual" shooting). And so perhaps in the case of video games you can make a claim that the line between fantasy and reality is more readily blurred. And maybe still it's just the nature of the medium; after all, does the Hunger Games book series, which glorifies killing and violence, incite aggression as much as virtual reality? (Likely not).

Still, at base, art often exists as an outlet for our wild, unimaginable or illicit desires. Lolita may not give us license to become pedophiles, but maybe in some way we revel in its lasciviousness because it speaks to some of our own "forbidden" actions or inclinations, sexual or otherwise. Video games do not tell us to shoot, but evoke a sense of action, danger, even destructiveness that we may safely live out in a fantasy world. Maybe, consciously or not, we need this art and this sphere to indulge in and to satisfy our morally perverse impulses without ramifications.

At the very least,  we cannot be misguided in trying to too quickly entangle the aesthetic value of video games and other art forms with real life ethical questions. Laying blame on video game manufacturers seem easy and even obvious, but I'm not sure it's fair.

Should there be a warning label on especially violent games? Probably. But should these manufacturers be held accountable for the lack of distinction between a virtual world (and acceptable actions therein) and the real one as has been made, at times, by a few errant actors? Probably not.

Ultimately, then, I'm not sure what the solution is. I have come to the conclusion that it's up to us to carve out this distinction and to do so aggressively. And I believe that we, as a society - as parents, educators, etc. - need to teach our  children to be cognizant of the divide between art and "the real" and that it also comes down to a matter of instilling ethics, a sense of right and wrong. It's not a perfect solution or a well formed one, it's even an overly idealistic and trite one. I'm not naive to think that no matter how hard we try to preserve this distinction, some people will still fall victim to it, act out, or perpetrate heinous crimes.

But my point, here, isn't really to propose a solution, because I don't have one. Rather I hope to share a perspective I've been thinking a lot about and to suggest that we might need to reconsider our approach to the "blame game," or at least shed some welcome literary light and consideration on it.

And so, at last, I can only leave you with a quote from Nabokov:

"A masterpiece of fiction is an original world and as such is not likely to fit the world of the reader."