Epistemologies of Violence: Medieval Japanese War Tales

Although violence is one of the most primitive means of communication, appropriate aggression is nevertheless something that needs to be learned. But even though scholars of various disciplines agree that violence is deeply embedded in cultural structures, there has been a remarkable lack in scholarship on how the conscious differentiation between appropriate and inappropriate violence is learned through mediated representations of violence. By applying media theories and works on social learning to premodern Japanese material, I argue that mediated violence can create a “safe space” where different forms of violence can be experienced without the physical consequences of real violence. Mediated violence thus serves crucial functions as learning spaces where societal rules and norms can be temporarily suspended, reconfigured, and often reinforced through active experimentation without the danger of bodily harm. Brutal and graphic depictions of violence thus go beyond mere entertainment. By aestheticizing and staging good and bad violence, mediated violence invites its audiences to reflect on and learn from violent episodes. Violent representations reduce the complexities of real-world conflicts, thereby facilitating a process where audiences can make sense of—and create order out of—chaos. Through the use of epistemological theories, I argue that such simplifications are necessary for human cognitive systems to be able to relate to and learn from violence, and that this learning process takes place within a social and collaborative context.