One rarely sees a movie these days without seeing several violent acts, and one rarely sees such a violent act without also being invited to share in the pleasure of it. Across the media, a great deal of human imagination and industry is spent on destroying human beings for entertainment purposes. There can be little point to a movie like Hannibal, for instance, beyond enjoying the extremely gruesome deaths of three unpleasant people. There can be little appeal in a show like The Sopranos, or the endless trail of gangster flicks, beyond open bully-worship. The stock-in-trade of the great artists of the information age, from Scorsese to Tarantino to Eminem, is the lingering depiction of sadistic brutality. Today's archetypal hero is the lone tough-guy who metes out brutal justice; we cheer when he dispatches the bad guy in a sadistic manner, and the more sadistic, the more we enjoy it.

Sadism is in particular a fixture of geek subculture; it is often those who are seen, and see themselves, as the most gentle, quiet, nerdy, even "left" elements of society who most lap up this stuff. Superheroes such as Spider-man and the X-Men are pretty much open appeals to revenge fantasy and geek wish-fulfilment -- where the geek triumphs over the bullies by being an even bigger bully. Comics in general, from my limited sampling, seem to contain more than their fair share of sadism. Computer games, geekiest of all, lead the way in depictions of gore, each competing to be gorier than the last, using the latest graphics to depict violent death to an accuracy never before realised, or even desired. They are egged on by game reviewers (surely the least talented of all journalists) who treat it all with tongue-bitten glee, gushing about "exit wounds" and "arterial spray" with the same linguistic hardon pornographers use to describe cunts and cumshots. And more often than not, it is the geek who consumes this kind of thing, and The Sandman and The Matrix and Snow Crash, who grows up to produce mass cultural product. Thus continuing the cycle.

I don't use the term "sadism" lightly. It seems to me there is a definite lascivious element in all this bloodshed; in a culture where anything approaching a realistic depiction of sex is howled upon, the attitude towards violence is very much "BRING IT ON!" In the mass media, violence is a substitute for sex, the pleasures of the flesh replaced by the pleasures of blood-splattered chunks of flesh. This kind of sadistic ecstasy reaches its culmination in a spectacle like The Passion of the Christ.

One doesn't have to adopt the simplistic moral determinism of the religious right, or endorse anything like "family values", to see that media sadism both reflects and contributes to something rotten in society. It can only further a cheapening of human life, desensitisation, and indifference to human suffering, with examples you can fill in from the past year's headlines. And I'm fed up of nerds apologising for violent computer games and the like. To deny that these things have an effect on society is to deny that there is such a thing as society -- it is in short, to be Margaret Thatcher. Countless psychological studies have shown that violent games make people more violent; but even if the Marie Antoinettes of the gaming world insist they are unaffected, they shouldn't conclude from the particular to the general. It takes a bewilderingly complex web of cause and effect to produce something like the Columbine tragedy; but it would take a peculiar form of blindness to deny that years of shooting the shit out of people in computer games was a significant strand in that web.