Lightning Crashes in Newtown
I grieve for—and with—the families of those slain in last Friday's Newtown massacre, especially the parents of the 20 schoolchildren who perished only days before the Christmas holidays. As images of shattered homes scatter across my television screen, I'm reminded of the need to step back, decontextualize, and think things through. Already, commentators are parsing motive and meaning. Is this a sobering reminder of the United States' lax gun laws? A testament to the plight of people with mental illnesses, like Asperger's Syndrome or personality disorders (from which the shooter, Adam Lansa, may have suffered)? Has our nation become so culturally violent that mass shootings are less manifestations of our communal discourses than inevitable outcomes of a shared pathological heritage? What to say, think, do?
Assignation of meaning is an understandable, if ultimately fruitless, endeavor, immediately following a traumatic rupture in our sociopolitical thoughtworld. Even as we decry the shooting as "senseless," we seek to make sense of our fragmented individual and collective consciousness. Moreover, we're reminded of our finitude. Not just mortality, mind you, but our inability to categorically summarize our sensibilities. At many distances from the event, we are sublimely affected, overcome by the weight of a broken totality, a disruptive and ambiguous becoming, the 'pure event', to borrow from Deleuze. Who can be blamed for attempting to locate such disruption within the borders of a teleological narrative that tells us what happened and when, what defines "before" from "after," what moments are important and what can be cast aside, in what direction we must now step to secure tomorrow for our subjectivity?
If one is to choose a theoretical path suited for addressing the indeterminacy of mass violence, one could focus on the materiality of the event. Earlier this year, object-oriented philosopher Levi Bryant sparked an uproar when he claimed that a shooting was not, in and of itself, a political act. While many critics complained that Bryant was inserting an artificial caesura between politics and being (as if being is always already enmeshed in specific political networks), he was actually remarking on the ontological precedence of the latter over the former, pointing out that an entity must exist before entering into political assemblages. Being, in this sense, is non-normative; a thing is before it is something or exists for something. This holds equally true for bullets, guns, mental illnesses, and political ideologies, among other components of violent acts. Believing that subjectivity and aesthesis are perpetually forged by and propounded within performative power discourses (the famous "everything is political" maxim), political idealists argue that Kantian finitude prevents us from recognizing autonomous existence, leaving power analysis and ideological critique, writ large, as our central ontopolitical tasks. Yet, ideological critique, by itself, only recapitulates the forms of hierarchy it purports to problematize, positing an 'enlightened' critic as an intellectual sherpa for the blind masses, while disregarding the material conditions of possibility that ground people in hegemonic power structures and discipline possible opponents.
Bryant, then, is correct to prioritize being before politics. Everything can be made political, even if thingness is not inhered with distinct political formations. To say otherwise is to valorize hyperrelationism, the idea that all things are glued together in a coexistential, coeval, non-contingent relational network—a consequence of claiming that all things are interrelated. Here, we can carve an opening for object-oriented ontology to speak to the shootings. In order to address the complexity of mass shootings, one must first acknowledge the being and potentiality of the myriad entities in play. For OOO, this includes not just the shooter and his or her weapons, but mental illnesses, political ideologies, gun laws, guns themselves, bullets, capitalism, violence, aggression in social discourse, Halo, elementary school infrastructure, multiple spatiotemporalities, and more. Putatively real or not, all of these things are equally objectal, possessing be(com)ings and withdrawn potential that exceed any relation into which they enter. Furthermore, each of these entities is capable of producing material effects. Rather than dissimulate the travesty beneath the limited cloak of an anthropocentric subject and the ideological haze of its attendant human agency (whereby power is primarily analyzed in terms of signification and social construction), OOO teases out the power exertions enacted by objects, human and nonhuman alike, as they shape their own relational space. It's important to note that OOO doesn't disavow critical theories. To the contrary, it views these methods as imperative to understanding power at the human level. Since humans have a lot of power, materially speaking (anthropocentric climate change, drone warfare, or human trafficking, anyone?), critical theory remains a crucial part of our theoretical toolkit. To possibilize the revelatory ambition of ideology critique, however, we must acknowledge the power that nonhuman actants have on colliding objectworlds and investigate the dissensuality of objectal encounters.
Accordingly, OOO interrogates the material constitution of and contributions to social assemblages and events, an understanding of which can then be used to make normative claims about how social assemblages should be modified to discourage or promote the occurrence of certain events and ideas about eventuality. Taking the Newtown massacre as a site of analysis, OOO might ask: What mereologies do nonhuman—even inhuman, by some standards—objects possess that propound the social and normative ecologies in which the shooting arose? How do these entities, like capitalism or violent cultural codes, regulate their constituent parts and, in turn, interact with one another? In what political networks are significations of psychoaffective alterity deployed and to what end? What aesthetic sensibilities are involved in the process of entities translating one another's experiences (and experiences of one another) into their own terms, and how might this advance or complicate attempts to characterize the trauma resulting from the shooting, as well as the agonism stemming from the plurality of interpretations pouring forth from the event? How is the becoming of the event existentially different from its narrative depictions? More importantly, what difference(s) are cleaved by 'power', however we come to understand its obectality, and what relations does it enter into? Are these relations static or an open field? How does power move throughout other objects, large and small, from an elementary school in Newtown to the Mortonian hyperobject of technoviolence? What withdrawn potential does it obtain and forceful excretions does it produce? Once these ontopolitical questions are substantively effectuated, we can move to the meta-normative query that is on everyone's mind—namely, what, if anything, is to be done?