Tag Archives: neoliberalism

So There’s Just Been a Mass Shooting

So there’s just been a mass shooting. The newsfeed is full of it, the TV can’t stop. Ugly scenes. SWAT cops running around in combat armor like beetles with ballistic shields and submachine guns. Ambulances and camera crews somewhere where they’re not supposed to be, where they shouldn’t be. The reports are confusing. Maybe the shooter is dead; maybe he’s still at large; maybe he’s been taken alive; maybe the cops killed him, maybe he killed himself (regardless of outcome it’s pretty safe to assume the shooter is almost certainly a “he”). The current casualty count is uncertain. Some victims may pull through; others may succumb. The dead bodies are still warm.

Here’s what happens next. Depending on circumstances and timeline, some of what follows may be attenuated, some of it may be condensed. But here’s what you should expect, and what you should know.

First, not all “mass shootings” are created equal. The very fact that we’re paying attention to this event in the first place, and calling it a “mass shooting,” is the function of selective economies of attention and predetermined narrative framings.

Much like “gun violence” itself, there is no settled, universal definition of what a “mass shooting” is. When counting and talking about “mass shootings,” some academics and members of the media will use the FBI definition of a “mass murder,” others will use its working definition of a “mass killing.” One key difference between these definitions is body count: if your definition of “mass shooting” is synonymous with the FBI’s “mass murder,” then it’s four dead, not including the shooter; if you’re using their definition of a “mass killing,” it’s three. The kicker here is that people have to die in order for it to qualify. In other words, if you’re wedded to either of these definitions, when seventeen people are shot and injured in a single incident at a block party in New Orleans, then this is technically not a “mass shooting.” As Gwyneth Kelly pointedly notes, variations in mass shooting data provide ready fodder for some pro-gunners to wave away the problem and discredit research in general. Meanwhile, crowd-sourced datasets like the Mass Shooting Tracker (which Jennifer Masica has written lucidly about here) count incidents where multiple people can be wounded, but many of these are acts of violence tracked by other FBI datasets (i.e., gang-related incidents) that rarely capture the same degree of media attention – or activate the same public emotional response – as do rampage killings by active shooters.

In other words, for you to be seeing that “Mass Shooting” news alert, a whole range of selection processes have already occurred. It’s not a one-way-street, though. The media is giving you news that you are presumed to care about, and your attention to it fuels the process. And so we need to ask a question here. It’s so obvious, and yet also asking it seems like violating a taboo, like callousness. Here it is, regardless:

Why do we care about these events so much? Of rather – why do we perform caring about these events so much? Not that caring and performance are mutually exclusive, of course – but what if there’s something about the latter that undermines our ability to do the former?

There’s a certain hierarchy to which mass shootings capture the general public eye. Shootings that happen in schools and on college campuses grab headlines, followed by those that happen in recreational venues (malls, theaters, trendy districts), and then workplaces and lastly homes. Body count and the age of the victims plays a role, but it seems that what matters most is that such shootings occur in public spaces that enshrine cultural values of education, leisure, consumption, and productivity. In other words: violence that strikes against the nurturing and flow of precious human capital is a collective horror. And since this is America, where life is cheap and some lives are cheaper than others, you should fully expect our attribution of value to be very much constrained by our biases with regard to race, gender, and class.

Second, the question of the shooter’s identity and motives will simultaneously become a rhetorical football, an object of dismissive, knee-jerk righteousness, and, above all else, and at every possible level, a derailment from actual political action. I game this out in real-time on Twitter practically every other week, and the song is always the same. The immediate rush to perform bullshit digital forensic psychology on the shooter’s social media footprints will selectively follow frames that simultaneously foreground “politics” (in the most point-scoring sense) while also effacing and sustaining deeper political structures. Considering race is the most obvious example. If the shooter is black, there will be barely-even dog-whistle characterizations of thuggish criminality, coupled with an attempt to tie his actions to black activism – to call upon leaders in the “black community” to answer and apologize for “their” “responsibility.” A similar pattern of racist targeting and a logic of collective guilt will be brought to bear if the shooter is suspected to be Muslim, where the vocabulary of terrorism is ready-to-hand, and especially if the target can be tied to our never-ending Global War on Terror. Meanwhile, if the shooter is white, there will be an immediate push to individualize his actions and to paint him as pathological, mentally ill. There’s a double lie in this latter, pathologizing move: it cynically stigmatizes the mentally ill as a group, and simultaneously disowns the normalization and influence of cultural pathologies which are shared by “normal” people and cultivated by cynical politicians and media figures.

The agenda underlying all these moves is two-fold. First, to muddy the waters and stoke rage by activating tried-and-true stereotypes and associationist assaults that quickly derail serious attention (“He liked Media Matters on his Facebook – he was a Liberal!” “Oh yeah? He followed the NRA on Twitter and posted this meme!”). Second, to depoliticize both the mass shooter’s individual motives and the phenomenon of mass shootings itself. A white man can assassinate a black State Senator in the name of a pretty-damn-familiar brand of Southern chauvinist irredentism and talking heads will question if he had “political” intentions or whether he really is a “terrorist” instead of just some poor lost soul. Meanwhile, male mass shooters from the killer in Killeen in 1991 to the killer in Isla Vista last year espouse a shared ideology of entitled, violent misogyny that is recognizable and overlaps with broader cultural attitudes, yet our refusal to grapple with that fact (or to put their acts on a continuum with a grotesque national landscape of gendered violence and domestic abuse) remains resolute. The deep structures of our culture and political process are extremely invested in not talking about racist violence, gendered violence, and the role of guns in both – let alone their intersections – and selective depoliticizing in favor of pathologizing is a favored national coping mechanism. The violence which spurred this post – a shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood Center – is an act for which the motive remains, at the time of my writing, per media insistence, “unclear.” I know as little as anyone else, but even now the stirrings of the framing process are visible: if the clinic was targeted, we are being told, it must be the solitary act of a madman, hygienically sealed off from the months of gory Right Wing vilification of PP that preceded it; if it wasn’t, then PP should apologize to its critics for having the gall to think that suffering an extended shootout on its own premises was somehow a political matter – even as those same critics none too subtly implicate PP may have deserved to be targeted. Implicit behind both these cognitive pretzels is not just a disavowal of the political stakes of abortion rights and cultural misogyny, but a truly remarkable notion of what constitutes “the political” itself: “Don’t worry folks – this wasn’t a political act, it was just a normal mass shooting. You know, one American going on a rampage in a high-profile public place and gunning down a whole bunch of other people, a phenomenon that happens pretty damn frequently, but which is of course not a political problem in and of itself. How could it be?”

Third, the “conversation” will inevitably end in general exhaustion, stultification, and monetized rage. Derailment and posturing from the Right will meet with self-sabotaging and posturing on the Left, and both sides will shadowbox over “gun control” while favoring magical thinking over an acknowledgement of the actual horizon of possibility. Meanwhile politicians will rise to occasion to utter the usual and increasingly pathetic pieties or pandering with promises of radical change that they couldn’t realize even if they were serious about them. And then we’ll all take a break for a bit, our energies spent, and walk away, likely less informed and more sure of ourselves than ever. Meanwhile, this mass shooting, like the previous mass shooting and the next mass shooting, won’t just spawn retweets and shares and Tumblr posts and thinkpieces and shoddy stump speeches. It will also sell guns. If you listen carefully enough, above the sound of keyboards and thumb-taps, you can hear the bills being rustled out of wallets, the metallic snap of rounds loaded into magazines.

Safe Spaces: Guns in Neoliberal America

It’s been a few months since I’ve written anything here. Writing for publications is great, but there are also ways in which that kind of work can exist in tension with more open-ended thinking. This blog is a space where I can tackle that kind of thing. And where I can talk about something that I’m not seeing many other people talk about much, if at all: the place of gun violence and gun control against the landscape of contemporary American neoliberalism.* This is an immensely complicated issue, and I’m planning on trying to tackle it with more focus and at length elsewhere. But I think we need to start talking seriously about how the American appetite for guns relates to our contemporary market, political, and affective landscape.

Because whatever you may think of it, we already have “gun control.” We just have it in a very precise neoliberal sense, complete with its own rhetoric of freedom of choice, consumer rights, and individual responsibility. Likewise, America’s booming market for guns exists in no small part thanks to deregulation, a collapse of faith in public institutions, the widespread pillaging of social services, the redistribution of resources upwards, and more.

But what’s driving that market is neoliberal affect as well. I think that the current tenor of many American gun cultures (and, yes, there is more than one) can be directly tied to the ethos of the militarized surveillance state, to the operations of the security state, and to the same forces that have given us a privatized carceral state. This state is a behemoth that simultaneously generates fear as its reason for being and outsources monetization of that fear at every possible turn. These forces don’t operate in a vacuum – they’re deeply related to one another.

A case in point: if you follow headlines and watch political speeches, you’ve probably noticed a growing shift in rhetoric from advocating for “gun control” to talking about “gun safety.” You don’t need to be George Orwell to see “control” and “safety” as two sides of the same coin, and you don’t have to be Michel Foucault to see appeals to “safety” as also being very much about ideologically coding people’s relationships to one other and to the state, stoking, legitimating, and channeling their fears even as it promises to alleviate them.

I’m not taking any policy advocacy stance here, but I do think we need to be honest that, beyond the slogans, we’re dealing with institutions, practices, and attitudes that are durable and interrelated with each other. Moreover, since this America, these factors are embedded within a deep matrix of white supremacy, gendered violence, and other forms of oppression as well. Forget the epiphenomenal dog-and-pony show of the primaries: whatever future “gun control” (or “gun safety”) we may eventually wind up getting will necessarily emerge from that backdrop, and be constrained by its horizon of possibilities. We need to confront that possibility rather than just bemoan how “other countries don’t have this problem.” That’s true – they don’t, and they never did. But we do.

How does this play out, for us, in America, in our contemporary neoliberal moment? Well, one way to think about gun control and gun violence in general involves emphasizing spaces, and the flows of things through them. Spaces can be literal (streets, schools, offices, etcetera) but also metaphorical, just public “space” in general. The things can be guns, bodies, capital, attention, fear and “safety” itself. Today, in American academic spaces, there seems to be more attention to safety than ever. I’m not just talking about active shooter safety drills, or “gun free zones,” or absurd anti-shooter countermeasures, but about the idea of schools or class rooms as “safe spaces” or spaces that should be safe. Safe not just from gun violence, from physical violence, from sexual violence, but from other modes of violence as well.

But gaze at the national landscape and you see a sudden apparent paradox. In the name of making  schools “safe spaces,” some students, faculty, and activists will clamor for a student paper to be boycotted or a controversial teacher to be fired; elsewhere, in the name of making a campus “safe,” students, faculty, and activists will insist on expanding concealed carry rights to campuses so that everybody can bring guns with them to class.

We could mine this juxtaposition for all sorts of reductive thinkpiece fodder (“PC Culture Run Amok in Our Schools!” or “Gun Culture Run Amok in Our Schools!” – take your pick) and draw a lot of fine-grained, ultimately bullshit comparisons, but I think we should just let the juxtaposition sit for a minute. Let’s just contemplate, for a moment, how the safety of faculty and students boils down to regulating the presence and flow of ideas – and of weapons. What’s at stake here?

An emotional undercurrent runs through all of it: a sense of fear, of precariousness. This emotion is no less real even if some of its expressions may strike us as exaggerated or pernicious. Because whether or not they are safe in practical terms, campuses are not experienced as safe. Empirically speaking, they certainly don’t offer everybody equal grounds for the same sense of safety: it’s hard to overstate how much campuses are already saturated with emotional stress, abuse, and financial precarity for practically everyone on them. And so people reach for what guarantors of safety they can, be they slogans or sidearms or both.

I’m going to be teaching again in the Spring. I find myself half-jokingly contemplating a scene where I begin a class by saying “Trigger warning: gun violence!” and a jumpy student pulls out a Glock and starts shooting. It’s an absurd scene, but, in honesty, what isn’t absurd at this point?

Guns and bodies; capital and souls. Thinking and writing about guns for a decade now, it seems to me that most folks don’t care about the flow of lead and blood in spaces they don’t live in or care to think about on the regular. Straw-purchased guns drop bodies in Chicago and Baltimore and most people don’t care. But suddenly guns and bodies appear in places they do care about, or that they could see being inhabited by people they know or who look like them — now, that’s a five-alarm fire. Untraceable guns killing socially marginalized people in the streets? That’s where they’re supposed to be, the implicit logic goes, killing whom they should. But legally bought guns killing people in spaces that disrupt the precious flow of human capital? A national crisis.

Our unique brand of white supremacy and neoliberalism may well be able to tamp that crisis down. We certainly have the technology and profit motive to make everybody we deem valuable stakeholders in the American enterprise feel safer, or at least, feel just safe enough that we can continue to monetize their generalized sense of fear in other ways (analogies to the War on Terror are more than incidental here).

But can America – in 2015, or 2016, or ever – offer much in the way of a corrective to the deeper structure, to the underlying, fundamentally unequal distribution of who-gives-how-many-fucks-about-whom?

Your guess on that one is as good as mine.


*Update, February 2016: I want to comment that there *is* indeed a superlative book on neoliberalism, affect, and debates over gun carrying, which I hadn’t read in its entirety before writing this – Jennifer Carlson’s “Citizen Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline.” It’s an all-around brilliant and non-pareil intervention into contemporary debates over guns by way of rigorous ethnography and an unflinching analysis of race, class, and gender within the context of the American post-industrial landscape, and I cannot recommend it more highly.