Environments and Acts

Two overly simplistic narratives have emerged about “the shooting” in Arizona. In the first, careless rhetoric created the conditions necessary for the shooter to take action. Less abstractly: people act on what they hear and see, giving life to metaphors. In the second, the shooter was mentally ill, acting out his symptoms. The first narrative focuses on the socio-political while the second focuses on the individual. In more nuanced versions, we have been asked to think about how the socio-political engages with the individual.

The questions are not new. They are, broadly, about publics: how they are formed, how they are inhabited, how they form the “skin” of the social—the skin as something on which “experience” and “affect” are “written” and “felt.” The questions are about the porousness between “individuals” and “publics,” about the “publics” that share imaginations encoded in words and images, in metaphors and symbols. The questions are about our vulnerability to “atmosphere” and “environment,” about the tenuous fragilities we term “normalness” and “normalcy.”

I started writing this post three days ago. Since then, the discourse around the Arizona shooting has been “contained,” necessarily so. While a few people are still talking about “environment” and “atmosphere,” most have conceded that the shooter was neither to the left nor to the right—he was “mixed up.” We have been called to “civility” (I remark to a friend that white Southern gentlemen opened doors for white ladies and raped black servants).
I am interested, now, in why the “shooter” must be contained, what such a strategy allows us to imagine about the political, about “the environment” and about “atmosphere.”

Metaphors bear history, and “the environment” continues to be the “site” of intense debate: do discarded chemicals leak into our living spaces? Are we poisoning the world we inhabit? How much “poison” can we take? What are the abilities of human bodies, animal bodies, and plant bodies to “adapt” to changing environments? What do we need to believe to act as we do? How do we need to act to foster belief?

The relationship between sickness and environment continues to be debated. We know, for instance, that soldiers who fight in wars bear physical and psychic scars. We know that communities located next to toxic sites are at higher risks for certain conditions. We know that continual contact with infected objects and bodies has health implications. We know that changes in discourse are historical and register something about the social environment—we now use “terrorist” more than “communist,” though it’s not clear that the affect we have toward the two is any different. For emphasis, of course, we say “communist terrorist.”

It is dangerous to speak about “the environment,” to believe in the possibility of what Jane Bennett terms “vibrant matter.” It is far easier to believe that tossing a plastic can into the trash “solves” something than to trace its subsequent “lives” and effects, to trace, that is, how it becomes “environmental.” To speak of an “environment” is to attempt to “contain” that which might be most uncontainable. Face masks, hats, and sunglasses can only minimize so much. It is easier to believe in an environment that is dead or benign or pastoral.

It is far difficult to speak about traces and sediments and accumulations and effects—to acknowledge that small mostly undetectable things circulate in the spaces we call home. Thus, I say, “my water tastes bad. I must buy a filter.” I do not want to say, “my water might be poisoning me.” The distance between both statements, the will for one to be truer, suggests something about how we prefer to think of the environment.

It is true, of course, that cause and effect are rarely as linear as some might want. Basic Newtonian laws fail to explain how discourse circulates and acts. Simultaneously, there is a strong will to minimize the relationships between the thinkable and the permissible. Or, as some of my students keep saying, “heinous act y was possible because the people didn’t know any better.” The will to believe in a “less moral,” “less ethical,” and “less humane” past too often papers over debates on morality, ethics, and humane-ness in the past. Which is to say, for instance, some people defended slavery while others contested its rightness. “History” is rarely morally neutral.

I am suggesting that we need richer explanations of the relationships between and among environment and psychology and action. If we cannot simply draw arrows that point from political affiliation to action—an always inadequate way to think—we can draw thick lines that map context and action. We can talk about what has become thinkable and permissible. About the kind of “necessary paranoia” that now accompanies living. (Janet Napolitano’s voice greets me at metro stations, airports, and grocery stores—once, this was a scene in a dystopian film.) We can take collective responsibility for the environments we produce and inhabit.

I worry when the metaphysics of tragedy are used to absolve us from our historicity—when our makings are ascribed to fate or coincidence. The situation of when we are demands more, both the difficult and the impossible.

2 thoughts on “Environments and Acts

  1. I read your piece close in time to two other essays I want to point to. First Stephen Steinberg’s Boston Review criticism of a recent issue of of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science “Reconsidering Culture and Poverty.” Second Leigh Eric Schmidt’s thinking about Courtney Bender’s “The New Metaphysicals.”

    I grew up in the American South during an effort to desegregate schools. I think the experience of many white students like me was that it made injustice visible.

    Schmidt channeling Bender writes: “I think she would say that historical accounts of metaphysical religion and American spirituality have gotten in the way of good sociology: namely, they have obscured the social, institutional, and economic networks that are most important to understanding the production of today’s spiritual practitioners.”

    You point out that “‘History’ is rarely morally neutral.” And if I get you right that we cannot make moral decisions, decisions about how to treat one another, without knowing history. Schmidt says “Americans are notoriously bad at history.” I think Americans often believe that moral decisions ought to be made without regard to history.

    If I get you right, and I think Schmidt and Steinberg are taking a similar position in favor of history, I agree. But the “other side” is pervasive. I’m not scholarly in any way, maybe there are others like you encouraging us to see an ecological approach. It’s new to me anyhow and has the gears turning in my head.

  2. John, I think I had at least two thoughts going at once, jumbled up as I tried to say too much.

    First, as you point out, that we should “know” history, but also know its diverse formulations and contestations. I tend to think of history as debates about varied pasts, or pasts from multiple perspectives. And I tend to pressure “knowing”–even when one spends time in multiple archives, what emerges is a “best possible” picture, rarely “the whole picture.”

    The second idea was that it is dangerous to believe that those who lived before us had absolutely different conceptions of “the good” and “the right.” I think if we pay attention to the multiple voices available (if at times ghosted), we can get to more nuanced conceptions of how power functions. As always, I return to the fact that at all moments during U.S. slavery, there was opposition to it–the moral “field” was contested. If we acknowledge that “history” is this “contest,” we can be more responsible.

    The environment thing is an attempt to get beyond easy cause and effect scenarios and to ask if different metaphors might allow other ways of thinking. I am vastly unschooled in eco-thinking, unfortunately. Though friends and colleagues continue to teach me.

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