La politique de l’autruche

by le manque

In the contest to mystify what is at least for this worker bee the self-evident object-cause of mass killing—namely, the happiness of a warm gun—Professor Wampole’s latest foray into social criticism at The Stone really takes the cupcake.

At first I thought that conventional wisdom—call it “Facebook psychology”—was generally divided into two (maybe three) camps. On the one hand, there are those who blame the mass media, either the reporters for sensationalionizing the event (thereby turning it into a non-event) or the culture industry for its representation of violence. On the other, there are those who blame inadequate access to something vague like “mental health care.” A third possibility is inadequate “gun control,” which, to my mind, is just as vague, a political cipher that falls more or less into the same camp as “mental health care” (but more on this below). (Yes, I’m leaving out of this picture what passes for conventional wisdom on the right—the teachers didn’t have the guns to defend themselves—but I think the best response to that is silence of the Proposition 7 variety.)

Now comes Wampole’s ingenious contribution:

“Limiting access to weapons is certainly a pragmatic albeit incomplete solution to the United States’ propensity for murder. However, were the guns to vanish instantaneously, the specter that haunts our young men would still hover in silence, darkly.”

What’s insidious about this assertion is that it is cloaked in all the demystifying garb of your standard ideological argument. Taking a cue perhaps from Hanna Rosin’s recent The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, which one Time’s book reviewer describes as “carelessly apolitical,” Wampole diagnoses a structural, or as she calls it “subconscious,” problem—the “decline of the white male.” Since most of the mass killers happen to be middle class white males, it would then make good sense to assume that it must be a symptom of their fall from social power. As anecdotal evidence, Wampole introduces us to her poor white family in Texas, a “region” where all the women, despite being mostly single moms, are doing “O.K. in the end,” but where all the men abuse “drugs or alcohol” and spend time in prison. “If this pattern is not familiar to you personally,” she assures us, “I am certain it is the lived experience of someone you know.”

Thus Wampole at her most succinct: “The angry white man has usurped the angry black man.”

Now the problem here is not merely that the core of Wampole’s argument is militantly counterfactual. According to the latest DOJ statistics, while the current homicide rate among non-whites is a little more than seven times that of whites, the overall trend is that violent crime in general has fallen dramatically over the past two decades. The real problem is that Wampole’s understanding of the event actually partakes in the same logic as those previous types of left conventional wisdom. Let us recall for a second the structure of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” in which the Prefect of police assumes that the Minister must have hidden the letter someplace in his apartment—everyone understands that the letter, much like a firearm, is useless if the Minister doesn’t have it ready-to-hand and would leave the Minister impotent if it ever were used. After searching the Minister’s apartment from top to bottom, the Prefect has come up with nothing and thus seeks out Dupin, Poe’s great solver of enigmas, who understands that the secret of the purloined letter is that the Minister, following the path of the signifier set by the Queen, has hidden it in plain sight. As Lacan puts it in his seminar on the story:

“In order to grasp in its unity the intersubjective complex thus described, we would willingly seek a model in the technique legendarily attributed to the ostrich attempting to shield itself from danger; for that technique might ultimately be qualified as political, divided as it here is among three partners: the second believing itself invisible because the first has its head stuck in the ground, and all the while letting the third calmly pluck its rear” (The Purloined Poe, p. 32).

At first, we might be tempted to say that Wampole is a lot like the Prefect with his head in the sand, missing the simple fact that, as I perhaps too casually stated earlier, the purloined letter structures the subject in the same way that possessing a gun does. (Along these lines, Dan Baum’s “Happiness is a Worn Gun” remains one of the most insightful essays about guns ever written.) At the same time, Wampole understands this, but in paying attention only to the congenital political blindness around her—fetishizing, as it were, the ordinary, the perennial poor white’s complaint of being, in Dylan’s words, “only a pawn in their game”—she misses the real force of her argument, which is precisely that a gun is a concrete representation of the phallus, perhaps its earthly representative par excellence.

This is why metaphysicalvillain’s Adorno quote comes off sounding so psychopathic. A most doctrinaire Marxist in the end, Adorno fails to see the link between surplus-value and surplus-enjoyment, and thus further confuses the machine’s production with its consumption. As he goes on to say in that same section of Minima Moralia: “not least to blame for the withering of experience is the fact that things, under the law of pure functionality, assume a form that limits contact with them to mere operation, and tolerates no surplus” (40). No doubt Adorno pierces through the veil of experience here, but it is the very impotence of ideological critique—of catching a glimpse of the Real, i.e., “the vermin of the street,” while being unable to do a damn thing for them—that leads Adorno to imagine the bottomless irony of vehicular homicide. There is a purity to this kind of negation that would seem to negate even the death drive itself, a place where even those of us who sense the all-too-human limitations of jouissance—what Lauren Berlant has called its “ambivalent whiplash”—realize that in the end it’s all we’ve got in this life (and as Fifty Shades of Grey teaches us, we may as well enjoy its sting). And yes, I am suggesting that mass killers do probably glimpse the Adornian truth of things as at least one condition for pulling the trigger (and this is why Wampole’s call for empathy is best used as an engine for new legislation, rather than a psychologistic imperative).

Much closer to the mark on this point is Nabokov’s high-and-dry Humbert Humbert, contemplating murdering his Doppelgänger, Claire Quilty—a name that practically invites unveiling—the real and for that reason only possible corrupter of Lolita. Observe him in his final encounter with the now-grown-up nymphet, just prior to the novel’s denouement: “I could very well do with a little more rest in this subdued, frightened-to-death rocking chair, before I drove to whatever the beast’s lair was—and pulled the pistol’s foreskin back, and then enjoyed the orgasm of the crushed trigger: I was always a good little follower of the Viennese medicine man” (274).

Nowhere is Nabokov more Freudian than in his moments of disavowal, a technique that only serves to transport his imagery to the laws, if not the very limit, of signification. For if Lolita is anything beyond the pale quiver of Humbert Humbert’s fantasy, she is the culture industry. Like Adorno—who could never rid himself of his bizarre latent class subjectivism—Humbert Humbert’s answer to the problem of mass culture is to retreat into the nymphet kingdom that is High Art. And this, I want to claim, is part of a much broader post-1945 trend to transform complicity into something like resigned connoisseurship. But what looks like a willful projection of bland android-like critical distance in Adorno is for Nabokov’s alter ego something much more affecting: actual enjoyment. The oscillation between enjoying and failing to enjoy—given voice in his only real encounter with Lolita, the scene of her “oh, no” with a “sigh to heaven” (285)—is where the true pathos of Humbert Humbert resides.

And I think this leads us back to Professor Wampole, the link between her current essay and her previous one on the hipster. What is unbearable for Wampole (and most of her academic ilk) to imagine is that anyone could actually derive a dialectic of enjoyment from popular culture. More specifically, we could say that she is correct that gun violence, especially the genre of mass killing, is a product of males “in decline”—not just white males, but all males. And not just historically, but transhitorically. For being “in decline”—the illusive reverse of Bach’s endlessly rising canon—is what it means to be male, from Napolean to Woody Allen. As a consequence, male desire ceaselessly turns around the maypole of object a, as we see in just about every scene of “Love and Death”:

The obverse of Wampole’s argument would need to account for what has emerged as the most horrific genre of female violence, the Casey Anthony who murders her children (often by drowning). But I’ll leave that for an analyst more equal to the task of sexuation.

In the meantime, I think I speak for the Hive in offering a political prescription: in lieu of castration, confiscate the fucking guns. All 270,000,000 of them. Pace anti-orpheus, I do think that living under liberalism entitles us to a fuller experience of the every day, a radical ordinary that is capable of rupturing ideology rather than constantly being undermined by it. This lies in the discovery that sometimes all you have to do is see what is staring you plain in the face. buzz...
  1. J.R. Dec. 19th, 2012

    @la manque. I thought I would quote in full what Lacan says about Marx, for he certainly does not say that Marx missed surplus-jouissance, in fact, he practically says the contrary:

    “That is why I told you last year that in Marx the a [objet a], which is here, is recognized as functioning at the level that is articulated—on the basis of analytic discourse, not any of the others—as surplus jouissance. Here you have what Marx discovered as what actually happens at the level of surplus value.
    “Of course, it wasn’t Marx who invented surplus value. It’s just that prior to him nobody knew what its place was. It has the same ambiguous place as the one I have just mentioned, that of excess work, of surplus work. “What does it pay in?” he says. “It pays in jouissance, precisely, and this has to go somewhere.
    “What’s disturbing is that if one pays in jouissance, then one has got it, and then, once one has got it it is very urgent that one squander it. If one does not squander it, there will be all sorts of consequences” (Lacan, Seminar XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, p. 20).

    Then later, he says, I think to clarify and also to defend the idea that the surplus jouissance of objet a is somehow prior to surplus value: “What Marx denounces is the spoliation of jouissance. And yet, this surplus value is a memorial to surplus jouissance, its equivalent of surplus jouissance. “Consumer society” derives its meaning from the fact that what makes it the “element,” in inverted commas, described as human is made the homogeneous equivalent of whatever surplus jouissance is produced by our industry—an imitation surplus jouissance, in a word” (p. 81.)

    I place this here to defend Marx against Adorno, in a sense. For the program that Marx champions, you know the “workers of the world unite” is aimed at the complete upheaval of these “consequences” that occur when jouissance is squandered, when it is ‘gotten up’ in the form of a product; whereas Adorno laments the fact that products are always squandering jouissance within the brutal logic of a “consumer society” that he seems at a loss to escape: “The only responsible course is to deny oneself the ideological misuse of one’s own experience…by the shame of having air to breathe, in hell” (Minima Moralia, pp. 27-28) .

    Certainly doctrinaire Marxists treat this Adorno as a bourgeois imitation, as a product of capitalism. Yet, since I personally do not hold allegiance to one side or the other, I think that we can reread your very provocative claim within the ambiguity of these comparisons (Marx and Adorno, surplus value and jouissance): the claim that we should view Adorno’s vision of technology creating a sort of Grand Theft Auto citizen as the very psychopathic logic of the ‘wimpy white kids’ now murdering us. I think you are totally right. I think these kids believe they can fulfill this “law of pure functionality”, and yet it is exactly because I think this that I do not give Adorno ‘no mean bargain’.

    Adorno says later in Minima Moralia “only Freud’s exaggerations are true”, so I think it not entirely unfair to apply this rubric to Adorno himself. And in this case, I think we can only agree that the limit of the dream of “consumer society” is this “law of pure functionality”, one where indeed death drive is annulled because there is no more surplus. But this is exactly where Marx does not miss surplus jouissance in his term surplus value (and deductively, if he does follow him in some capacity, neither does Adorno); for the surplus value is exactly that which makes the fantasy of pure functionality forever incomplete. And this is why even if these kids try to get there, try to embody it, well as Lacan says above: “If one does not squander jouissance, there will be all sorts of consequences.” Which is another way of saying, you have to squander it, it must be squandered. And this too is why I will repeat what I said in another comment: I do not perceive these kids as psychotic, I do not think they actually exist in this pure law of functionality, they dream of it, which is much different. To me they represent very clearly the passage à l’acte of the hysteric—which, indeed, Lacan tells us in Seminar X, is suicide. And this is another way of saying that they simply cannot bear the anxiety of surplus. And yes, I think Adorno barely could, though he did, in shame, pobrecito…

  2. le manque Dec. 19th, 2012

    In the first place, I don’t think it’s any accident that these shootings, at least beginning with Charles Whitman (and here, my god, do we not see the quintessential American “I”-o-cratic nature of these killings–of the lone gunmen–a sort of absolute song-of-myself–to these killings?) through Eric Harris to Adam Lanza, take place in schools, which we may as well metonymize as the university discourse. A sort of revolt against Knowledge, then, in the name of a self-to-come. An attempt to be a Master, beyond book learning, which has ceased to be a form of knowledge. But even that doesn’t have the ring of truth to it. Why?

    Now I’m pushing into empirical territory when I say that what unites most of these “wimpy kids” is that they are always “intelligent.” I can personally vouch for Eric Harris–he was not stupid. Strangely, I think calling them stupid gives them too much credit; in the same way that calling them evil or psychotic does (despite the risks inherent in turning those very terms into objects of fetish, academic or otherwise). We could hedge this claim by introducing the term “language game,” which renders all claims to intelligence a tautology, but that doesn’t change the structure of the particular form of violence here.

    So when I say Adorno “comes off as”–I think I’m hedging beyond a vernacular formulation, which takes us so close to jouissance, that this psychopathy is an illusion of discourse, an effect of ideological critique as such: nothing short of the attempt to be a master, which is the ignorance of lack–a much different concept than stupidity. I mean, this “work” we do here–it’s really quite insane!

    So I’m not sure my claim is that, as you break it down so nicely, “we should view Adorno’s vision of technology creating a sort of Grand Theft Auto citizen as the very psychopathic logic of the ‘wimpy white kids’ now murdering us.” I think that is the claim of a film like “Elephant,” which actually takes us into a video-game version of the event, as if to pre-empt any culturally conservative critique of cinematic representation qua object cause. (As mouse says, the image gives us a means to symbolize the event, not the other way round.)

    So when I say that “mass killers do probably glimpse the Adornian truth of things as at least one condition for pulling the trigger,” I am indeed, by saying “one condition,” leaving plenty of room for surplus. That is actually the whole point of the post: mass killings are “just” gun-violence after all (a very small percentage of it at that!). There is nothing particularly “evil” about, as you say, the passage à l’acte (passage-a-lacked?) itself–at least not that much more than the orgasm our Humbert imagines at the pull of his trigger (a fantasy structure, by the way, Nabokov utterly deflates at the moment of Quilty’s death: “I hit him at very close range through the blankets [Quilty, indeed!], and then he lay back, and a big pink bubble with juvenile connotations formed on his lips, grew to the size of a toy balloon, and vanished” [304].)

    I just think the form of the surplus we are dealing with takes us to a dark place…the source of all silence. I think that these “smart kids” have found God, that this, moreover, is the form that local sacrifices to that God takes–under Capital.

  3. J.R. Dec. 20th, 2012

    You know, you had me all but convinced against stupidity until you told me they found God–then I thought they were stupid once again. I suspect, given the eerie nature of the silence you speak about, that these labels are probably ineffective. And are you telling us you knew Eric Harris?

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    La politique de l’autruche…

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