Violence is paramount to maintaining fantasy fiction and disembodied violence is a pillar of the fantasy genre. Disembodied violence is the celebration of violent power, or the expression of violent power against unthinking but vaguely human-shaped antagonists; it’s the kind of violence that isn’t really violent because it doesn’t take place against another person. Take Iron Man 2: in the third act, the villain activates several dozen military drones to kill attendants of our hero’s trade expo. These drones are shaped like people, but they aren’t people. They’re dangerous and need to be broken down, which is why it is ethically necessary for Iron Man to fly around an zap them all with lasers. Iron Man doesn’t hurt anybody, but he’s in a situation where using weapons is to the benefit of the people around him. Another good example are the creatures in the Legend of Zelda series: octaroks aren’t people, they’re dangerous and completely deserve the cool sword slashing that Link delivers to them. Octarok corpses fade from existence and, if Link ever leaves and returns, he’ll find them perfectly healthy; they’ll be as hostile to our adventurer as ever, but they won’t be at all put out by their time in the afterlife.
This is a staple of fantasy storytelling. Heroes in The Illiad cut down hundreds of faceless mooks before squaring off in glorious, soliloquy-filled battle against a hero of the opposing nation. One of the things modern readers find so frustrating about medieval epics is how indifferent heroes seem to be to performing heroic deeds. Troilus and Gawain in Troilus and Criseyde and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight spend most of their time either trying to have sex or trying not to while they gloss over all the details of their adventures, the monsters they fight or the battles they win in brief one-line asides. They go about their internal dramas while their heroism is shuttered away and taken for granted.
All those insignificant peons Achilles, Troilus or Gawain fight, though, are non-people. Their heroism isn’t really violent because it happens in the background and it’s conducted against non-people. These epics focus on their social responsibilities as leaders and the conflicts they face as friends and lovers. Violence only becomes violent when they’re confronted with another hero, Mortal Kombat style, in a fair duel between opponents equally matched save for an imbalance of heroism or villainy. Either the villain is slain honourably or the hero is slain tragically.
These battles are good fun. The one-on-one contest between Hector and Achilles is like that of Sub-Zero and Scorpion in that both are spectacles that the audience is supposed to be invested in. I don’t want to write epics or fantasy off as power fantasy even if that’s a part of what they do, or even the primary purpose for their creation, but fantasy creates a space where violence is not-really violence. And from there, acts of violence service the audience in a detached way. The goal of the fatality in Mortal Kombat is not to secure the winner’s victory, it’s to humiliate the fallen’s defeat.1 The winner doesn’t just destroy the loser’s body, they possess it and exert their own agency through it.
In Elain Scarry’s book, The Body in Pain, she examines the role of torture in validating state power. If we take language as the a subject’s only mode of expressing truth and agency, than under pain they lack agency. Pain is outside of language: it can’t be experienced except in its feeling. There’s no way to abstract pain through a sign system, it can only be imposed. Torture strips the subject of language: they can’t speak, they can’t control their actions, they can’t communicate so the torturer imposes language onto them. The subject has no access to truth except through the torturer, the subject has no access to agency except through the torturer. Torture isn’t about gaining information to protect the state—it’s no good for that—torture is about deciding what is truth and making someone else say it.2 We are only bodies, and torture makes us less than that.
For Scarry, though, torture is not about the tortured subject, it isn’t even about the torturer because both, in their own ways, are made less human by the act of unmaking and remaking a human through torture. Torture is for the people who watch it. Whether they’re discomforted or not, whether the torture is public or only the devices and excuses that hide it are public. There’s a moment in J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians where six natives have been marched into a fortress and Col. Joll writes the word “enemy” into the dust on their backs with his finger, then he orders his men to whip them before the fortress’ people until their blood and sweat wipes their backs clean. Similarly, Jurek Becker’s Jacob the Liar begins with the titular character, a Jew living in a Polish ghetto near the end of the Second World War, caught by a watchtower’s spotlight as he heads home. A disembodied voice calls to him and demands he enter the officer quarters, where none have returned, to seek “suitable punishment” for breaking curfew. When he arrives he finds curfew is still half an hour away. In both cases we have the state issuing violence to strip people of their agency to make a spectacle of them.
Power becomes something to point at Othered people and shape truth through the victim’s body. This is what an enemy looks like, you have all seen it; this is how time works, I have told you so. People and the world are reshaped by the state’s imposition of pain onto others’ bodies. Some of the people in Coetzee’s novel are uneasy with the display of torture, and in Becker’s the other guards are annoyed by the practical joke the tower guard plays on Jacob, but there is still a public display of power, one that removes agency from a character and reminds everybody—the subject, the torturer, and every one both come in contact with—who holds power.
I apply this theory to fiction because I think it’s a more ethical structure to see how theory plays out. Fantasy fiction gives us a chance to see bodies in pain without the pain. The violence is sanitized. When Thorbjorn runs through the character Atli in the Viking epic, The Saga Of Grettir, Alti leaves this mortal coil with some variation of “broad-spears are becoming quite fashionable these days”.3 He leaves the world with a comment on these damn kids and their broadspears. This is a bit of a ridiculous example, but it’s an extreme of what is normal for the genre, the dying words or the farewell soliloquy from the vanquished warrior. Maybe it’s a farewell to the world, maybe it’s a comment on which weapons are becoming fashionable. But in fantasy, the body in pain maintains language. It’s recurs throughout epic and Aristotelian tragedies and it carries into fantasy literature as well. Fantasy attempts to simplify the problem of dehumanizing bodies in pain.
But I don’t know if slotting a human approximation in for a human being in the structures of violence alters the result. Those mooks that Achilles and Hector slice through en route to their magnificent battle aren’t non-people, they’re enlisted peasants called up to defend their aristocracy’s honour. Those horrible orcs trying to ruin everything in Lord of the Rings aren’t just empty vessels trying to wreck everyone’s stuff; their approximation of humanity is closer to some real humans than others, and the justified violence against them crosses over into the justifications of violence against the people they resemble.4 De-humanizing octoroks might eliminate the problem of violence in killing them but it creates a world where
…the mindset…is the same one that tends to give rise to colonialism: all that is other to me (an Oktorok, say) is hostile to me, therefore my violence against the other is justified; as is my exploration, mapping, and domination of the other’s territory, and my exploitation and consumption of the other’s strategic reserves of Triforce. Which are, after all, just sitting there unused. If anything I’m doing them a favor by coming in and putting those resources to work.5
Likewise, the deep abstraction of virtual set-making and menu-based commands aestheticize a game in a unique language, which shifts a game’s meaning-making abilities in interesting ways. But by approximating humans with nonplayable characters in games to legitimize the violence against them, the player is still participating in the spectacle of violence.6 Abstracting violence through play distances the player from violence, it separates the body from pain.
The heroes in The Avengers might leave New York City a crater, but that’s a fair trade for the spectacle of eliminating the chitauri invaders and capturing the nefarious Loki. The chitauri might be shaped like people, but all it takes is one little nuclear warhead and they all shut off like toy robots. No prisoners, no survivors, no trial for their crime or explanation for why they attacked a civilian centre. They are, and then they are not. The Avengers need only arrive, publicly perform their heroism and restore the status quo.7 The warring factions of Game of Thrones are perfectly valid in exchanging shows of violence because it’s the only currency in that universe that holds any value, and if a few hundred unnamed sub-characters go missing in the exchange than there’s always another season.
One of Scarry’s other arguments in The Body in Pain that is important for our purposes here (even if I’m not entirely sold on the argument) is that violence always supports the state. Celebrating martyrdom or submitting to violence always validates the state’s power to distribute violence and create a spectacle of violence. So this trope of disembodied violence in fantasy, the dehumanization of the target of violence to adjust the use of violence into the realm of ethics while still demonstrating the hero’s power, becomes a new kind of problem. I know that there are fantasy stories that aren’t interested in violence, and there are even ones that are interested in violence but not in a dehumanizing/empowering understanding of it. But there’s a problem in fantasy violence that I think needs to be examined. Goku and Vegeta flinging laserbolts at one another and burning craters in the earth is cool, just as commanding knights and dragons against one another with clicks and drags is stimulating and satisfying. But I’m starting to doubt that it’s possible to have a kind of violent heroism completely divorced from true violence and I’m still not sure what that means for fantasy.
1 Strik, Oscar, Aaron Gotzen, Bill Coberly and Amsel von Spreckelsen. “Moral Bodies.” The Ontological Geek. Oct 26 2014
2 Richter-Montpetit, Melanie. “Why Torture When Torture Does Not Work? Orientalism, Anti-Blackness and the Persistence of White Terror.” The Disorder of Things. Jan 21 2015.
3 The Saga Of Grettir the Strong. “Chapter XLV Atli Murdered By Thorbjorn Oxmain.”
4 Walker, Austin. “Real Human Beings: Shadow of Mordor, Watch Dogs and the New NPC.” Paste Magazine. Oct 10 2014.
5 Stokes. “Grand Theft Auto and the Problem of Evil.” Overthinkingit. Mar 3 2011.
6 Tomasik, Brian. “Do Video-Game Characters Matter Morally?” Essays on Reducing Suffering. Mar 30 2014.
7 Olsen, Dan. “Superhero Follow Up.” S3. ep.1. Foldable Human. Video.
Further reading: Alexander, Leigh. “A Game Is Being Beaten.” The New Inquirer.” Mar 10 2014.
von Spreckelsen, Amsel. “One Flew Away from the Cuckoo’s Nest – Representations of Aslylums pt 1.” Madness and Play. Dec 9 2014.
Petit, Carolyn. “Kings of Pain: On Gender and Power in Shadow of Morder.” A Game of Me. Oct 6 2014.
Wilson, Eric G. “The Problem with Aesthetic Violence.” Work in Progress. Jan 2013.