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Tragedy of the Common: Markedness and the Creation of Mundane Tragedy

Abstract: This paper explores how the integration of images of tragedy and atrocity into daily life gradually move such events from highly marked occurrences to less visible occurrences. Through a process of repetition, the moral significance of the marked atrocity becomes unmarked as it is further integrated into the symbolic interactions of daily life. This paper also discusses how this process, although not defined by the medium of transmission, can be utilized in the generation of political motivation and in the reinforcement of social norms.

How can I sit here and eat my tea, with all that blood flowing from the television? At a quarter to six, I watch the news, eating, eating, all my food as I sit watching the red spot in the egg that looks like all the blood you don’t see on the television.
Gang of Four, 5:45

Every day we are confronted with images of tragedy, suffering, and torment. These images, administered in regular doses and at set schedules, besiege our visions and concerns: famine in an impoverished African nation, fundamentalist-fueled religious violence in the Middle East, rampant inner-city gang violence, the drug-funded guerrillas in South America. The representations of atrocity multiply, yet they seem more and more invisible. Paradoxically, as violence and atrocity become more integrated symbolically into the imagery of daily life they are less visible in the conscious vision — they are everywhere, and they are nowhere — they are hidden in plain sight. How, and why, does this process occur? In a world where the information and images vastly outnumber amounts available to all heretofore-existing generations, why are we increasingly immune to the realities with which we are presented?

The nature of the presentation of tragedy through television, radio, and print determines whether it lies within the realm of concern and whether or not it is perceived as relevant. Whether or not the images of tragedy and suffering are held to be of consequence by those viewing them is not based upon the intrinsic qualities of what is being presented. Through the presentation of tragedy runs the subtext of power: the power to determine what is within the sphere of moral relevance, what is of concern, what is within the realm of action, and even what is perceived by those who observe it. Conversely, how a tragedy is presented can render it unimportant, morally irrelevant, or cause it to be unnoticed and un-comprehended by those who are directly presented with the imagery and information.

Markedness, Moral Focusing, and Mundanity

That is to say, the presentation of tragedy determines whether something is marked or unmarked, and whether or not it falls within our sphere of moral concern. To illustrate the phenomenon oft-referred to in sociological literature as ‘markedness’ (a concept to which we shall return repeatedly), we can call to life the infamous Man on the Street. The Man on the Street goes to the coffee shop, reads the Times, and then goes to the park for an afternoon stroll. None of this is outside the realm of ordinary experience for the Man on the Street, and hence it is unmarked. But then the Man on the Street steps onto the highway, where he is struck by seven cars, an alien spaceship, and the entirety of the Christian Coalition. This is a highly unusual event even for the Man on the Street (who is subjected to a great many things), and hence it is ‘marked’ as such.

“Language,” states Wayne Brekhus, “plays an key role in the social marking process. The very act of labeling a category simultaneously constructs and foregrounds that category” (35). Thus the word ‘atrocity’ is set up as a marked term defining a marked condition and assigning it a moral value; i.e., atrocities are bad. This distinguishes it from things that are positive, less egregiously negative, or which fall outside the realm of moral delineation. While the word atrocity has a moral value assigned to it, the word ‘tragedy’ tends to refer more to a disaster or negative events of a personal nature without the moral markings; that is to say, the word tragedy refers to happenings of an unfortunate nature without necessarily condemning it as an act against God, society, etc. Thus we can see the politics of the terminology: to say “this is an atrocity” compels one to action, or at least to seek and condemn the perpetrators of said atrocity, but to say “this is a tragedy” accentuates the unfortunate nature of the event without necessarily condemning anything or anyone. The same event, as we will discuss further, can often be presented as either a tragedy or as an atrocity — so while we use the terms almost interchangeably in the paper, it is important to keep in mind the political significance of such usage in everyday life.

As we are not surrounded in our day-to-day lives by mass starvation, genocide, and warfare it would follow that these things, were they to suddenly enter our lives, would be highly marked social situations. Similarly, accounts of atrocity tend to arouse our concern and occasionally our indignation; it would follow that all atrocities have the potentiality, by virtue of this markedness, to be noticed and therefore to be the object of our sociomoral concern. But we collectively obsess over some atrocities while wholly ignoring others — thus we ‘mark’ them as within our conscious sight and cast the rest of the unattended atrocities to the mundanity of shadow. And even if the atrocity is not entirely overlooked, the manner of its presentation — whether it is presented as an affront to humanity or as grim statistics in the back pages of the newspaper — will affect our reaction to it; for example, we are much less likely to lose sleep at night after reading figures on world hunger than we are after watching a TV special on starving children.

But the reality of the situation is that not all tragedies – regardless of their gravity or consequence – are marked, despite the level of information and awareness that may exist about them. The reality of tragedy is the perceived reality of tragedy, which is socially constructed and defined by norms held by the institutional order of the perceiver. And as the perception of tragedy is socially constructed, the extent to which tragedies are deemed relevant is determined by norms and values existing within the overall cognitive social structure. The reality of everyday life requires the mental separation and sifting of that which is of concern from that which can be ignored. To borrow the words of Berger and Luckmann, “the reality of everyday life always appears as a zone of lucidity behind which there is a background of darkness. As some zones are illuminated, others are adumbrated, I cannot know everything there is to know about this reality” (44).

The volume of information available only increases and expedites this problem. One could scour every available news source, media outlet, or other avenue of information in a brave attempt to equitably cover every world event and determine ‘that which is relevant,’ but to attempt to do so would be simply overwhelming. And even if one were to presuppose a condition where there would exist equal coverage of world events, or even equal attention being paid to each item presented, particular items would emerge in the concerns of individuals as being more important and relevant. These would often be attributed to the individual’s sympathy for the particular suffering of those involved or the scope or content of the event — Group A slaughtering Group B, for example — rather than other factors such as historical context (Group B having almost wiped out Group A twenty years ago). Furthermore, it is likely in a random discussion with the Man on the Street as he watches the news through a storefront window that one would hear him speak of the tragedy of the day (i.e., the tragedy presented that day) rather than any number of tragedies which closely resemble it.

Why are certain events within the designated realm of concern while others are thrown to the wastebasket of history? It would be easy to say that areas of concern are simply determined by their relevance, but this fails to elucidate the nature of how and why this process occurs. The key distinction here is how and why one image of tragedy lies within the realm of an individual’s concern and why another does not. Driving down the highway, the image of a dead sloth on the side of the road would elicit no significant reaction – the corpse of a child would. The cognitive process involved is much like the act of mental attending described by Eviatar Zerubavel as moral focusing, or the mental delineating of what is perceived to be of moral concern and what is not; for example, the previously mentioned sloth along the side of the road is an image “lying outside this circle . . . [it] is essentially considered morally irrelevant, as such does not arouse our moral concerns”(39). The sloth does not exist within the marked boundaries of “we-ness,” the child does.

Presentations of Tragedy in Everyday Life

It is our contention that tragedy and violence have become increasingly invisible in the cognitive sense through the nature and manner of their presentation — primarily through media outlets — though the nature of this change in perception can easily affect other areas of social life. It is the nature of the presentation, perhaps even more than the reality of what is presented, that determines how the information and images are perceived, comprehended, and mentally attended to in the social process; the qualitative difference in presentation expedites the transition between images of tragedy being marked and within the moral sphere of concern, and those that are unmarked and outside this cognitive sphere.

This, however, is not intended to degenerate into yet another rant about the “evil media” and how it is destroying the nature of reality, taking us to hell in a satellite dish, etc . . . The television and print media are used as examples here for how they present tragedy and atrocity, not because they are being blamed as part of some insidious plot. In the consciousness of that mythical being known as the “average person,” a great deal, if not all, of what they know about the world around them is filtered through the presentation of the subject by media outlets. Such a concept could also be explored through an analysis of historical texts or other avenues of information, as many of the same principles will apply.

Let us explore this concept through a few examples that demonstrate the process: consider, for example, the estimated between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people who died in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. When the media finally felt the carnage sufficient to warrant attention, it was virtually exclusively presented as a tribal conflict between two factions in some provincially anachronistic ancient feud. The situation was presented as a conflict between nameless and faceless blocks of people who had no descriptions or apparent motivations. Their existence was defined as an undemarcated block, notable perhaps only in how their particular catastrophe might rank among other massive tragedies in Africa.

Compare this to the media presentation of the victims of the World Trade Center tragedy, where each individual was distinctly portrayed as having a name, face, and a story. Some had only a brief paragraph, while other’s names were attached to epics of drama and loss. These stories made it possible to relate to each victim and granted them an identity beyond that of their victimhood: in short, these stories allowed them to attain a state of moral relevance in the cognitive sphere of consideration. As described by Michael Albert:

They looked at a calamity and gave the human dimensions of it . . . the media looked into this horrible occurrence . . . and it gave the human dimensions of the suffering . . . Now what’s wrong with that is not they did it, what’s wrong with it is that Iraq has suffered the equivalent of a September 11th every week for about the last ten years in some total and they haven’t done it [there] once.

Consider concurrently the style of presentation employed by charities urging us to donate money to alleviate suffering, disease, and hunger in Africa. Observe how instead of urging the TV viewer to donate money to a given community, they urge people to support the life of a given individual, which is made real to the contributor by providing a name, a face, and biographical information about the recipient of the charity. As the individual (more than likely a child, as we tend to find children more worthy of moral concern) moves from the realm of the abstract tragedy to personalized suffering, the individual tragedy shifts from the unmarked, morally invisible realm to the individualized realm which constitutes our moral concern – for that is when that with which we are presented becomes real tragedy, not merely an abstraction or an anonymous ‘atrocity’.

Stalin ironically, and perhaps most fittingly, summed up this very concept when he said, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Historically and in fiction one finds that the tragedies which hold the greatest moral concern and resonate with the most compelling fervor are those that have been crystallized and cognitively assigned to the actions and death of an individual, not to the situation or framework of that individual’s death. For many the Holocaust is recalled as the death of Anne Frank; for Parkinson’s, Michael J. Fox; for the sacrifices of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., and so forth. The tragedy and its recollection are attended to as crystallized and embodied in the individual’s tragedy and moved into the sphere of moral relevance.

These distinctions and demarcations are symbolic markers and divisions in the overall social structure of daily life. Symbolic markers do not exist exclusively in the mythic realm of grand cultural archetypes, but are integrated into the milieu of everyday life in such a way that binds together material realities through the aspects of meaning crystallized in symbolic forms. They create what Pitirim Sorokin describes as “the interdependence of meaning that underlies the vehicles and agents uniting them into an interdependent whole” (18). They become what might be called the objective markers and dividers of the subjective experience.

“Even the most workaday, least dramatic forms of social action are also forms of symbolic production,” states David Graeber. “They play the main role in reproducing people’s most basic definitions of what humans are, the difference between men and women, and so on” (82). The most common form of symbolic interaction that typifies perception and creates intersubjectivity in everyday life is language. Demarcations of moral relevance (or lack thereof) frequently emerge in the language and the classifications created by language in everyday life. This principle also applies to how tragedy and atrocity are presented within everyday life. Do we show concern for ‘illegitimate bastard children’ or poor, ‘disadvantaged orphans’? On Veteran’s Day (or Remembrance Day) do we count the souls of the fallen heroes or those of ‘collateral damage’?

For instance, according to urban legend the term “handicapped” was originally a blatant reference to the economically disadvantaged nature of the disabled from their inability to find work. Literally, they were holding their cap in their hand and begging for change. The nature of their tragic, or at least gravely unfortunate, condition was reflected in the term used to describe them. Through repetition and use of such a description the term lost the meaning it originally held as it became increasingly common with the language and experience of daily life. The demarcated “otherness” of such a condition gradually diminished to the point where we no longer realize that what we regard as a common term or disability was actually a fairly insensitive reference to an individual’s debilitating condition. Though the urban legend has nothing to do with the actual origination of the word ‘handicapped,’ it illustrates rather nicely the process of change from a very highly stigmatized condition of which we were once acutely aware into a nicely prepackaged phrase which acknowledges the condition while simultaneously allowing one to ignore it.

We are finicky consumers when it comes to what we will attend and ignore in questions of tragedy. As all employed journalists know, “if it bleeds, it leads.” In the same way that we have in recent years gone into a moral panic over razorblades in Halloween candy, teenage motherhood, and presidential sex scandals, so too do we go through the latest trends in tragedy and shift our sphere of moral indignation to Rwanda, Bosnia, etc. For instance, it has been documented that for the past twenty years overall crime rates, and many categories of crime including juvenile crime, have been consistently declining. Yet for some reason, and at purely coincidentally occurring two and four years intervals, we are often faced with the impending specter of “fighting the crime problem” or “getting tough on wayward youth,” or some other such imminent catastrophe. Similar phenomenon also exist for such events as suffering caused by a lack of health care, military aid and its relation to fighting the drugs that are killing Johnny (who still can’t read), and so forth. In short, we tend to go on compassion/indignation binges — every year or two one atrocity or another is the object of public indignation, charity, and large amounts of media scrutiny.

One can clearly see the effects of the presentation of tragedy in the public’s reaction to the World Trade Center tragedies. After September 11th the populace flew into a proper moral panic as described by Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda, replete with scapegoats, hostility, tighter enforcement of laws, and changes of policy (156). All tragedy has the potential for markedness, but it was arguably the presentation of this tragedy that caused the populace to fly into a moral panic; one wonders if farmers in Wyoming would have trucked down to Wal-Mart to buy their American flags had the September 11th tragedy gone underreported. Similarly, the atrocious conditions under which the Afghani women live — conditions which, for a long time, had remained outside our moral focus — were suddenly and repeatedly thrust into our moral realm.

The Elementary Forms of Spectacular Atrocity

One of the eventual results of constantly being bombarded by images of atrocity and suffering is that our moral sentiments suffer from compassion burnout; the sense of caring for all living things that we may have felt as children is replaced by a harsher cynicism and a rather clear delineation of who we will care about and who lies outside our sphere of concern. The more we are presented with these images of suffering, the more we push them outside our sociomoral sphere of relevance. And so the levels get ratcheted up — the ratings demand it, after all — and daily life slowly becomes supersaturated with the images and suffering and atrocity. This process slowly unmarks the imagery presented; it passes through us, undigested and unfiltered, essentially because it has been designated as irrelevant.

One can go as far as to say that some sort of tragedy over which the public-at-large is indignant is part of everyday life. So long as we are doomed to remain spectators to atrocities and tragedies that are only half-real, we must keep switching our attention lest we be forced to dwell on something and be morally compelled to act on the conditions that produce it — for example, a large newspaper like the New York Daily News will occasionally report on the dreadful conditions of sweatshop workers, but will switch the news story of the week lest we start having godless ideas about boycotting the companies which use such labor. But even our memory of disasters, which usually lie outside the political or moral realm and hence would require no direct action against tectonic plates on the part of the spectator, is a mere two years (Clarke). In short, we can’t seem to concentrate on more than one major news story at a time; recall the media consternation over the joint deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa.

To be sure, the repetition and ephemeral nature of the presentation of tragedy plays a role both in provoking our sensitivities and washing out the color of their effects. The first time we see the aforementioned crippled beggar, we most likely feel an acute mixture of pity and revulsion at the person’s condition. Seen enough times, however, the beggar fades into the urban landscape and becomes just another part of walking in New York City. Through repetition we become desensitized to the images presented to us; the information grows less and less noticed in the moral sphere of the populace. Whereas before the image of an emaciated African child or a Holocaust victim might bring one to tears, now they are accepted almost as part of the milieu of common suffering, assuaged by occasional remarks on the regrettable nature of it all. We may claim to “feel their pain,” but in reality much of it has shifted to a cognitive sphere lying beyond our scope of moral relevance.

Those unlucky enough to reside outside that scope merge into one big blob of humanity: ‘nonpersons’. Zerubavel writes:

The fine line that helps us separate persons from nonpersons also keeps our moral concern confined to those we regard as being included within a certain ‘circle of altruism’ which it helps delineate. Anyone we see as lying beyond the limits of this circle is essentially considered morally irrelevant to us and, as such, does not arouse our moral ‘instincts’ at all. (404)

As we are faced with these repetitious and ever more heartrending images of tragedy, we consign yet more humanity into the realm of nonpersonhood. Our ‘circle of altruism’ shrinks, from the child’s compassion towards every living and at times inanimate thing to only certain categories of people. We find our sphere of comfort and stay there, refusing to acknowledge our relation to the suffering of the world or the homeless on the street. By narrowing our focus we turn these people and their sufferings into nonpersons whose fate is ‘not our problem.’

Bringing the spectacle closer to home, the presentation of atrocity also serves to reinforce social norms — for example, the solution to world hunger is never presented in the media as ‘overthrow capitalism,’ but rather ‘donate money to Unicef.’ Presenting atrocity in a manner which encourages one to be a spectator of nonpersons as opposed to an active agent in their liberation encourages people to be spectators as opposed to engaging in valiant or much more mundane struggles for better public transportation, working conditions, etc. Atrocity is also used to provide a sort of alternate universe from which the viewer can recoil in horror and bless the gods that, even if he is alienated from his species-being, at least there’s still CNN.

Such is the cynicism bred by the spectacular, mundane atrocity and its falsely individuated or mendaciously lumped presentation. Through our roles of spectators and consumers of atrocity we become passive participants in a sociomental (Zerubavel 398) structure mediated and defined by the images presented to us. As described by Guy Debord, “the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which simultaneously impose themselves as the tangible par excellence” (59). As spectators we are conditioned to identify with images and the symbolic presentation which locates tragedy either within or outside of the realm of moral relevance.

The Unbearable Lightness of Passive Observation

And what of the moral and ethical implications of the presentation of tragedy — does it matter if the thought patterns and norms held by those with the power to influence these presentations sway the nature of their theoretically balanced presentation? Or, more bluntly, does it matter that “all the news fit to print” effectively means “all the news fit to print as designated by the standards and concerns set by the needs of the current institutional order?”

The rather predictable answer to these questions is yes; it does matter, for we have seen that the highlighting of or inattention to an atrocity can happen for a variety of personal or political reasons, all of which we would be wise to attend to. To quote Howard Zinn, “They say Dan Rather is an anchor man…what is he anchored to? He’s anchored to the establishment — and that’s the definition of an anchorperson” (Zinn). In addition, that which is put into our brains determines the outcome of our thoughts, and we cannot come to reasonable conclusions as to what should be the subject of our moral focusing based on skewed or incomplete data.

Also, by turning human suffering into a sensationalistic news story one commodifies it and turns it into that which can be sold back to us. The exchange of our human experience for ratings cheapens our existence to the point that we must put up for sale ever more exaggerated tragedy, which perpetuates a cycle that can only end in absurdity or worse.

Another consequence is perhaps less obvious: as the scope of moral focus is shifted, this newly delineated area of cognitive relevance can be used as a basis for creating political motivation and justifying or legitimizing political ideas. When images of tragedy and atrocity are presented in such a way as to locate them within our sphere of moral relevance, these tragedies or atrocities are tied to values and identity concepts held by the observer. Conversely, in a situation in which the tragedy is perpetrated by a group or power that has become marked with the status of “other,” how the tragedy is attended to and whether or not it is perceived as relevant to us depends on whether or not it can be portrayed as intrinsically infringing upon the values and identity purported to be held by the perpetrators.

Control over the nature and degree of these designations can be harnessed to generate political motivation. Consider Theodor Geiger’s conception of the community of pathos, or any grouping based around an ideal: “every union in collective pathos for a good, a value, take a hostile attitude toward those who espouse an opposite value conception . . . Common advocacy of a good enveloped by pathos is the unanimous negation of everything which contradicts this good. The nature of antagonism, the hostile rejection of other value conceptions is implicit in the value-idea itself” (211).

Thus if the tragedy or atrocity is portrayed in a way that appears to threaten the basic values or mores of the group, and particularly if it disrupts the flow of orderly life and injects a greater degree of uncertainty into it, the discontent with such a disruption and the perceived threat to the common value can be rallied into a political imperative based upon the antagonism inherent in the ideal itself. This is particularly effective if the tragedy is connected in some ways to symbols that resonate as the cognitive crystallizations of group values, which raises the distinction between the tragic and that which is outside of the realm of moral relevance to a level of antagonism.

Through the above we can see that the images of tragedy and suffering that bombard us daily do indeed have their effects. Through them, the tragedy that we would not have known about two hundred years ago (before the advent of widespread media) has been incorporated into our daily existence. To shield ourselves from the tragic overload, we learn to delineate what is within our sphere of concern and what is not; what does not fall into the realm of our concern we can look at as merely spectators of ‘the news.’

Yet through our role of passive spectators we learn to become complacent with human suffering and with existing social structures. The tragedy which was so marked to us as children fades into the gray of everyday existence, where it ceases to cause us concern and goads us into inaction. It is time to recognize the role that the presentation of tragedy and atrocity plays in our mundane existence and to take responsibility for its role in redirecting our moral focus. And from there, who knows? Maybe we’ll get a new Media of the Mundane.

Works Cited

Albert, Michael. “Terrorism and the War on Terrorism.”. Speech of 4/24/02, Seattle, WA.

Berger, Peter, and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Doubleday, 1966.

Brekhus, Wayne. “A Sociology of the Unmarked: Redirecting Our Focus.” Sociological Theory 16 (1998): 34-51.

Clarke, Lee. “Disasters and Social Memory,” Sociology of Risk. Rutgers University, New Brunswick. 21 Nov. 2001.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit, MI: Black and Red, 1983.

Geiger, Theodor. On Social Order and Mass Society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Goode, Eric and Nachman Ben-Yehuda. “Moral Panics: Culture, Politics, and Social Construction”. Annual Review of Sociology 20 (1994), 149-171

Graeber, David. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Sorokin, Pitirim. Sociocultural Causality, Space, Time. New York: Russell & Russell Inc., 1964.

Stalin, Josef. “Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union, 1941-1945.” 12 May 2002.

Zerubavel, Eviatar. Social Mindscapes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

—–. “Horizons: On the Sociomental Foundations of Relevance” Social Research 60 (1993) 397-413.

Zinn, Howard. “Media Bias and the War on Terror,” 25th Anniversary of the Resource Center for Nonviolence. Santa Cruz, CA. 14 Nov. 2001.

About the Authors:

Stevphen Shukaitis is a graduate student at the New School for Social Research program in Global Political Economy and Finance. He is also a member of the Non-Hierarchal Social Structures project ( worker’s collective and a guest lecturer at the New Brunswick Psychogeographical Institute, where is he currently studying the cognitive evaluative frameworks created by the occupation of everyday life by commodity logic.

Rachel Lichtenfeld studies Sociology at Rutgers University, where she works on cracking the patterns of cognition created by globalization and Wonder Bread™. She is also a member of the Desiderata Communitas and an avid fan of all things mundane.

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