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.