Man vs. Social Contract

Posted by on July 11, 2011

Why do people enjoy tragedy and horror?  This is an old question to which various philosophers have given responses.  The answers which I particularly found intriguing were by Noel Carroll and Dr. Freeland, though Dr. Freeland’s answer was the best among the assigned readings.  Still, although I appreciate Dr. Freeland’s position, I find the best response would be one that evaluates the conflict of man vs. social contract.  That is, I think that human beings enjoy tragedy and horror because it stimulates the human curiosity of ‘what if the rules were broken’.  Through this paper I will discuss why I find Dr. Freeland’s answer to be the best among the readings and also evaluate how this answer is not wholly sufficient in its explanation by looking at how the conflict of man vs. social contract plays as the base of human interest in tragedy and horror.

Noel Carroll essentially defends interest in horror, as “art-horror,” by stating that the reason human beings find it pleasurable is because it feeds their curiosity of the unknown/impossible through a focus on the plot.  The entire experience of seeing a tragedy or horror takes a person through an intellectual journey of discoveries, explanations, hypotheses, revelations, and confirmation.  The monsters in the plot “are impossible beings” and are “a perfect vehicle for engendering…curiosity” (Carroll, pg. 281).  The entire focus becomes the plot and the curiosity it provides, and the violence through the monster becomes secondary and consequential.  The monsters in Carroll’s definition are unreal and so it provides the audience with comfort, and they are then able to aesthetically enjoy the show.

There are obvious problems with Carroll’s defense and Dr. Freeland best expresses a critique through her example of the sub-genre of realist horror.  There are several film-adaptations of real life tragedies/horrors and one particular example Dr. Freeland uses is that of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.  Through this example it is seen that the monster and the violence is very real because the movie is “based on a real serial murderer” and “Henry is a monster” (Freeland, pg. 286).  The focus then for Dr. Freeland becomes that the interests of the audience in realist horror are in “the fascination of the realistic monster and the foregrounding of gruesome spectacle over plot,” both of which serve as being contradictory to “a classical theory like Carroll’s” (Freeland, 288).  Dr. Freeland concludes that a method such as an ideological critique is important in analyzing realist horror.

Fundamentally, I find her answer to be the best because she does not find a reason to defend horror and at the same time recognizes that “realist horror films can be good movies” (Freeland, 287).  While many of these films do have problems such as legitimizing patriarchal privilege or “obscuring the truth about factors that produce a climate of violence,” Dr. Freeland recognizes that a realist horror film does “actively encourage the audience in its critical awareness of its own interest in the spectacle” (Freeland, 290-291).  The example she provides is again of Henry.  Ultimately, ideological critique is important because even though the entertainment industry does play on our interests in the spectacle, we still have a responsibility for our participation, and a particular responsibility to recognize moral perversion.

I agree with Dr. Freeland that a defense of horror/tragedy is not necessary, and it is important to critically examine the influences and effects of the portrayals of horror/tragedy.  Where my beliefs differ is the basic underlying interest for human beings; that it is not the spectacle, but the curiosity in breaking the social contract that human beings participate in.  Human beings are always naturally at conflict with rules and restrictions. Horrors/tragedies express society’s break from these restrictions through plots that describe how a monster becomes a monster due to the restrictions various social situations place upon them.

In our daily routines, human beings like to bend rules as far as possible without getting into serious trouble that would disrupt our peaceful lives.  A few possible examples are speeding, running red lights, throwing trash out of one’s car window, or scribbling graffiti on bathroom stalls.  A game like Grand Theft Auto is another illustration through its popularity.  This game focuses on performing violent acts, all of which fundamentally violate the social contract under which human beings live.  Furthermore, if one ventures into the comment section of news articles which discuss issues of equality/rights, the internet becomes evidence due to the plethora of racist comments that can be observed.  In day to day conversation, most people would not express this racism because it would violate the morality that is mandated by the social contract under the guise of “tolerance.”  While these examples have not been those of tragedy/horror, they express the underlying root of human interest in all things, that of the conflict of man vs. social contract.

Evidence of this conflict can be seen in tragedy/horror through movies like District 9, Hotel Rwanda, and Henry.  District 9 and Hotel Rwanda show us what happens when our prejudices are let loose or allowed to be justified, and show us the real conflict of liberties vs. the rules/constrictions upon them.  Movies like Henry express the debates of Hobbes and Locke on man, nature and society by illustrating to us the random and repetitive chaos that is possible when one does not buy into a social contract, re-confirming for us the monstrousness in such a notion.

This conflict is the underlying interest of human curiosity.  Human beings are at conflict with rules.  Human beings in fictitious settings such as games or films are interested by their curiosity of what would happen if in a particular situation the social contract were to be broken or violated in some sense.  Noel Carroll tries to portray the curiosity as simply aesthetic, while Dr. Freeland attempts to ground it in the fascination with the spectacle, but ultimately the grounds are the age old conflict of man vs. rules/man vs. social contract.

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