I’m not sure we want to talk about the Newtown massacre at Dead Voles. It’s not the sort of thing that’s easy to have a satisfactory conversation about; because it was pretty awful, because it understandably causes emotional overloading of measured discourse, because it’s conveniently recruitable for all sorts of tangential projects. But if we did want to talk about it, James Livingstone’s remarks on “how not to think about Sandy Hook” would be one good place to start (also at Jacobin Magazine as “Guns and the Pain Economy”).
Jim starts out by attempting swiftly to disable the usual hand-wavy leaps to the problem of evil, individual responsibility, mental health care, and gun control. I’m for that. I think his dismissal of the moral personhood of the shooters from Columbine on is sloppy, unpersuasive, and ironic; but the snowflake ethnography of twisted personal moral systems gets us only a fine-grained understanding of particular individual syndromes, so I’m willing to join him in sidestepping that issue, and the others too.
Like many feminists and critical race theorists, Jim wants to talk instead about the collapse of entitled white masculinity over the last hundred years or so. He sees these boys playing out an apocalyptic script in which their private pain has to be made public, each of them a sort of degraded King Lear projecting their own angst into the universe. Why the drama? Because they are “superfluous” and “unimportant” – not needed for either work or war, the historic sites of the manly virtues; not needed at all, really, for anything. Why the guns and shooting? Because those are the means of the manhood now denied these boys.
Jim’s specific contribution to the discussion is to frame this relative immiseration, not in terms of attacks on entitled white masculinity by heroically triumphant women and people of color (which, incidentally, become effects as much as causes in his analysis), but the more structural and seemingly benign dynamics of post-scarcity consumer economy. We don’t need these boys as breadwinners because advanced industrial productivity has replaced mass labor – what’s left is a lot of feminized make-work in the ‘service economy’. And we don’t need them as warriors for the military version of the same reasons – drones and special ops get most of the real work of power done, and most of that’s make-work too, bad habits more than any kind of security necessity. So, who are these boys and what are they for? Not at all clear at the moment. In some sense, they’re just like the dead wood in the forest that used to get cleared out by little fires now and again, like regular wars used to clear out the surplus male population; now we keep both fires and wars from happening, with all that fuel lying around waiting for a spark. What would be the acceptable version of a controlled burn?
Jim draws on his outstanding work on the intellectual history of turn-of-the-century America to invoke William James, diagnosing the dynamic and predicting the problems:
James correlated the impending demise of those virtues with “pacific cosmopolitan industrialism”—a stage of development in which an older “pain economy” organized by the emotional austerity of necessary labor was giving way to a “pleasure economy” animated by the emotional surplus of consumer culture. This new economy, according to James, was a world without producers, “a world of clerks and teachers, of co-educators and zoophily, of ‘consumer’s leagues’ and ‘associated charities,’ of industrialism unlimited and feminism unabashed.”
From the standpoint of that correlation, the decline of necessary labor or productive callings, and the consequent confusion of male and female spheres—“feminism unabashed”—became the elements of an identity crisis for every man; for they threatened to dissolve the ego boundaries hitherto determined by the sanctions of scarcity, both economic and emotional.
Here’s how James put it: “The transition to a ‘pleasure economy’ may be fatal to a being wielding no powers of defence against its disintegrative influences. If we speak of the fear of emancipation from the fear regime, we put the whole situation into a single phrase: fear regarding ourselves now taking place of the ancient fear of the enemy.”
I think Jim’s right about all of it, including that we’re going to have to get clear on how the new post-scarcity order needs a new ideology of self, because the old one based on labor, discipline, and sacrifice is obsolete. And I can see how these shooters are effectively canaries in the coal mine of that process, outliers on the bloody trailing edge of the old order like Paris Hilton and The Situation are cautionary tales on the frontiers of the new.
But while I think Jim’s account gets at the deep structure of the situation (and The Situation) better than personal responsibility, or mental health policy, or gun legislation, or ‘the media’, it’s still got the feel of hand-waving to me. There are a lot of moving parts in how these shootings happen – all sorts of things not deadly on their own have to come together in just the right dynamic alignment. Entitlement, race, masculinity, anomie, anxiety; the autism spectrum, personal responsibility, psychiatric medication, helicopter parenting; easy access to guns, glorification of violence, fragmentation of popular culture, the news cycle; post-scarcity economy, speculative boom and bust, consumer society. I don’t think we can get to explanation through any of these factors, nor can we do without them. I think they’re operating at different scales, and the ways the scales interact from case to case matters as much as the specific factors involved. And I think trying to pick out any one of them as the ‘independent variable’, driving dynamic, or essential nexus of trouble, is only going to be accidentally effective.
But, as usual, I’ve run out of steam right when it comes time to either do the complex analysis I say we ought to do, or cut to the chase and propose policy. (In this respect I am a perfect New Man – showy but basically useless, the Kim Kardashian of critical thinking.) “It’s complex” is another kind of hand-waving. So great, it’s complex. Now what?
Update, 12/26 – It’s interesting to think this last paragraph in relation to Jim’s post on the passing of Alfred F. Young. Jim reports his frustration that unlike himself and his other teachers, Young refused to pursue an intellectual agenda. Every activist question was met with more primary sources. In effect, Young’s answer was always ‘it’s more complicated than that – let’s see how’.
Weber, Durkheim, and even Marx (think 11th thesis) knew that to get to practice you have to interrupt analysis. Activism requires simplifying abstraction. Of course that may be necessary – but there’s a place and an ethic for a patiently detangling scholarship that refuses to cut the knot, also.