September 10, 2010

Associate Professor of Sociology Alexander Riley

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. — News of school shootings, gang killings and intense bullying inevitably leaves those on the outside searching for explanations. And often, the speculation points to teenagers provoked by violent song lyrics, graphic video games and other transgressive popular culture.

The news media narrative of teenage violence does not, however, always match the reality. Rather, the connections between violence and music and video games have been perpetuated by flawed research and ideological television commentators, according to Alexander T. Riley, an associate professor of sociology at Bucknell University.

Popular music such as gangsta rap and death metal and violent video games may serve as an important cultural narrative for youths as they explore their feelings about transgression rather than carry out violent fantasies in real life, said Riley, who examines the role of popular culture and transgression in a new book, Impure Play:  Transgression, Sacredness, and the Tragic in Contemporary Popular Culture, (Lexington Books 2010).

"The idea that play, leisure and popular culture is just frivolous stuff we do when we're not doing the important stuff like working is a dominant one in our society, but it doesn't hold up to examination," Riley said. "Play matters deeply because it tells us important things about who we are and our vision of the world. It also provides moments of ecstatic escape from the structures and routine of everyday life.  We need play at least as much as we need work."

A tragic theme
In his book, Riley examines popular music such as death metal and the "gangsta" imagery of Tupac Shakur, Notorious BIG and the East Coast-West Coast feud of the 1990s; sport scandals such as the sexual assault allegations against Kobe Bryant; Internet websites with images of death and violence; and video games including "Doom III," in which players take on the role of a Marine on Mars battling demons and navigating a complex maze in search of weapons and ammunition.

These venues of popular culture, Riley said, share a common tragic theme that suffering is unavoidable, things frequently end badly and that the best way to overcome suffering is to embrace it as an inevitable part of life that is intimately related to joy and pleasure.

Such subjects regularly are discussed in the media but too often are addressed in a superficial way, with representatives from simplistic political viewpoints arguing without meaningful discourse, Riley said.

"You have the conservative side saying it is all or mostly just destructive and so we should ban it, and you have the liberal side basically agreeing that it's destructive but setting up freedom of speech as a kind of idol that precludes any serious discussion about what the stuff actually contributes as a positive element in our world of meaning," Riley said. "I think a better way to frame it is to ask, 'Why does this stuff exist and what might it be doing?' Arguably, something that is so widespread in our society is serving some kind of productive function."

Creating a narrative
Riley asserts that most psychological studies connecting violence with video games and other popular culture are conducted in a laboratory environment, which is much different from conditions in which people engage in such play. In situations of actual use of such popular culture, he said, rich interpretive frameworks are brought to bear on it by different youth audiences, and the cultural objects can take on a wide variety of meanings.  

"Some researchers are saying, 'Oh, look how horrible this is,' but they are basing that judgment on very impoverished data," Riley said.  

In a section of the book about "Doom III," for instance, Riley describes getting lost in the game. He forgets what floor he is on, loses track of where working elevators are and fails to find the most powerful weapons that would allow him to destroy the most threatening monsters in the game. Although he feels frustrated, confused and disoriented during this "strenuous play," Riley notes that he does not stop playing. Instead, he replays those portions of the game to find out where he failed and feels some satisfaction in realizing where he went wrong.

Riley also notes that in the game it sometimes becomes apparent that it is better to flee than to fight one's foes when trying to advance to the next level. He surmises that the game is sending the message that sometimes violence for the sake of violence is unproductive.

In popular music, Riley says, lyrics about murder, mayhem and revenge may do less to encourage violence than to explain it, Riley said. In these songs, he said, violence is not simply glorified. Neither is it celebrated for its own sake nor encouraged.

"Violence is made a part of a complex world in which these artists, and many others to whom they are speaking, live. And it is described in a way that places it in a tragic narrative of meaning," Riley said. "Joy and pain are inextricably linked; one cannot avoid doing some harm to others, even without intention, in the brutal world in which we live."

Rooted in religion
The role of transgression in social life was once firmly rooted in religious practice, Riley said. Medieval observances of Carnival, the period preceding Lent, for example, provided a designated time and space for ceremonial misdeeds, with activities such as eating to the point of illness and the mock killings of kings. Riley attributes the shift of transgression, from religion to popular culture, to the predominance of Christianity in the Western world and changing traditions.

"Most religions have produced a set of beliefs and objects that are venerated to the highest degree and also recognized that there are transgressive, destructive things in the universe that we also have to pay homage to and give their due," Riley said. "Over time, though, Christianity has bled transgression out of its rituals, transferring it to the realm of sin and evil to be wholly avoided and purged from practice. But the need for transgression as a part of cultural meaning didn't disappear. It migrated to popular culture."

Carnival still exists in Europe and in the form of Mardi Gras in places such as New Orleans, but the observance is largely "watered down" and highly regulated by government and police, Riley said. And that may not be a good thing for society.

"In the past, Carnival was a sanctioned space for transgression. Now we don't do that and it's not clear that the result is productive," Riley said. "You have these impulses and a cultural drive to express these things, but you are told you are bad for doing it."

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