When people open fire on crowds of strangers to let off steam, that’s a sign that you don’t have a society anymore. Crime is bad enough, but it at least follows a certain rationality — the motives are anti-social and dangerous, but legible. Terrorism is a step beyond normal crime, but again, there is some ostensible goal that the terrorist group is pursuing, albeit with tragically misguided ends. But something like a mass shooting isn’t even terrorism. It is sheer nihilism. It is violence as an end in itself, as the pure expression of a rejection of one’s fellow human being.
At this point, it is part of the ritual of a mass shooting for the shooter to be declared “troubled” or “mentally ill,” and then the liberals all point out that this happens every time and is a reductive explanation, etc. Yet there is a moment of truth in the individualistic explanation, because the systemic cause of the systemic problem of mass shootings is precisely a toxic individualism that, when thwarted, can find its way to a destructive annihilation of the other — any other will do.
We can also call it toxic masculinity, insofar as it takes the least desirable traits stereotypically associated with manhood — isolation, lack of empathy, rage — while completely discarding the more desirable traits like loyalty or duty. Surely it is no accident that only men — and almost always white men — participate in this nihilistic anti-ritual, but there is a false universalism in pinning the problem on masculinity. This is not always or even often how men behave. In fact, it is only in contemporary America that they have come to behave in this way at an epidemic level.
Call it toxic Americanism, then. That will allow us to include the ritualized non-response within the broader phenomenon. Systemic effects have systemic causes, and one of those effects is the utter refusal to take any steps to remedy the problem. Our political leaders are so enamored of the romance of gun ownership that they are willing to sacrifice dozens of us per year on the idol of the Second Amendment. Here I count all our political leadership — the Republicans who love their guns and the Democrats who spent the last couple decades attempting to placate the gun lobby (which refused to take yes for an answer and used every Democratic victory to prompt even more stockpiling of weapons). As ever, the choice between Republican and Democrat is that between active and passive nihilism.
As a result of this toxic Americanism, every one of us is potentially collateral damage of the distinctive form of aggrieved masculinity that America is producing in ever-greater quantities. And it is becoming clear that no amount of collateral damage will be enough to prompt action. The Las Vegas shooting claimed at least 50 lives and injured 200 more — an unimaginable loss that happened for literally no reason. Does anyone even remotely imagine that any action other than the ritual allocation of “thoughts and prayers” will come of it?
I am not being metaphorical when I characterize the mass shooting and its aftermath as a form of ritual. In a sense, it has become the baseline ritual of American civil religion — a ritual enactment of the dissolution of society, a ritual evocation of the apocalypse. Admittedly, this ritual has become so routine that we only bother to carry it through at the national level when the victims become particularly numerous (as at Las Vegas) or when the targets produce a special effect of horror (as a Sandy Hook). But it is of a piece with all our other distinctive observances: the rituals of blaming victims of disaster, of formally excusing police violence against the innocent, of brutalizing protestors with no legal or rational basis other than the demand for absolute submission. All of those ritual observances point toward the mass shooting as nihilistic violence in its purest form, with no claim to legitimacy or justification — a nihilistic violence that we collectively refuse to stop or even impede, because we don’t even remember what it might be like to be part of a society anymore.
9 thoughts on “The apocalypse is happening once a week or so”
“This is not always or even often how men behave”
Not even all men with guns, definitely. It’s generally white, American men.
But I’d hazard that men are by and large more violent than women.
‘Hazard’ is a cheap word to write, apologies.
I’m not trying to defend men, just to more directly impugn America.
In the decline of America I am struck by the parallel ascension of Newspeak.
It’s worth mentioning that much of the time, these men have a history of smaller acts of violence, often violence against women who are their girlfriends or wives. What would happen if we took *that* more seriously?
Great article, but also somewhat confusing.
I agree that this shooting is nihilistic, in the sense that it is anti-social/anti-human/born of a toxic and distinctly American form of hyper-individualism. The shooter likely had some deranged meaning or purpose in mind, but not some shared purpose that makes an act of violence “meaningful” in some sense. (Americans seemed to get this intuitively after 9/11, e.g., “if we don’t [continue some cultural practice], then the terrorists have truly won.”) Our response to it is equally nihilistic; we routinely try to locate causes in the individual, and by doing that, we avoid or displace any analysis of the social/systemic causes.
But describing the event and our reaction as a non-metaphoric “ritual” is confusing to me. Are you saying that this process–mass shooting, gun control debate, mental health explanation–is our way of giving meaning to these events? Is this ritual just more evidence of the toxic Americanism you describe?
Yes to both.
Society is not possible under capitalism. The violence that the rest of the world has experienced for the last 100 years is simply coming home.
Thanks for this set of reflections. It’s not emotionally cleansing but it aids a bit in my quest for some sort of psychologically stable foothold to contextualize an event such as this in the framework of the last several centuries.
What seems to remain of “Americanism” is, at one end, desperate poverty and, at another end, oligarchic accumulation—along with its punishing demands on those who wish to serve it without a key that lets them into the kingdom. In between are a vastly growing number of persons who have lost all sense of how to see themselves outside of the symbolic imagery of hypermodern consumerism.
Thanks for sharing this. Very wise.
I think think that ritual is correct both with respect to the killings themselves and the national reaction. My old MA student James Donovan (now director of the University of Kentucky libraries) did an Anthropology PhD prior to coming to LSU. His dissertation concerned the phenomena of “running amok” as it expresses itself in different cultures. Most cultures have characteristic ways that men seemingly completely lose their shit and run around destructively. James showed that in many cultures the accepted script worked to ensure that nobody got hurt too bad. From the perspective of the person running amok, he is completely out of control, but like two male lions fighting who don’t actually hurt each other badly, in the overwhelming majority of cultures where there is public running amok, nobody gets injured badly. The runner feels completely out of control but is in fact in the overwhelming majority of cases precisely enacting a ritual for what a frustrated male completely out of control does in that society. In our society this ritual more and more involves mass homicide.
My only quip about the above is that I think that the gun manufacturers bear even more blame than you assign to them. We did a course on gun violence in my adult Sunday school and found out that the gun manufacturers actually fund the NRA more than member contributions. It is no accident that the manufacturers benefit immensely in terms of gun sales in the wake of every high profile mass shooting. They also benefit from the distrust and paranoia that infects our society like a cancer. It’s actually quite demonic. The NRA stirs up paranoia to sell more guns to paranoid people. Our legislators are neutered by the gun lobby which benefits from mass killings.
With Melinda above I also think that the patriarchal aspect of all of this has to be theorized more. It’s not just that the men who murderously run amok in our society also hate women and enact this hatred (though that is hugely significant in itself). I also think we would benefit from a model of masculinity divorced from capacity for violence, divorced from patriarchy. While gender studies has been immensely helpful for understanding the connection between patriarchy and violence, I don’t think it’s been as helpful with respect to proposing alternatives. The shibboleths about gender being non-binary (as opposed to binary with significant outliers) as well as how gender is purely social make it pretty uniquely unhelpful. But maybe this latter stuff is necessary for performing the former task. I don’t know. And blaming academics in any way for the tragic dysfunctionality of our society undersells the extent to which that dysfunctionality has damaged academics’ ability to have any influence anyhow.
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