Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto.
This has long been one of my favorite quotes, which I translate as I am human, so nothing human is alien to me.
You know, I'm amazed that the recent carnage in Montreal occurs as seldom as it does. I'm amazed someone hasn't simply opened fire with an uzi in Times Square or Disneyland or at metropolitan airports.
Everyone dismisses such acts as the result of insanity, that only someone "sick" could do such a thing, a tragic anomaly from a disturbed individual. I suppose it's easier to swallow such horrendous acts when considered this way, just as, on the other hand, it's socially acceptable for soldiers to do the same sorts of things in foreign countries so long as God and Country are invoked to the accompaniment of celebratory fanfares and yellow ribbons.
Sadly most commentators will likely dismiss this as just another impenetrable mystery, the result of a deranged mind. Killer loved guns, hated people claims the headline of an early entry by someone ill-equipped to solve the mystery, citing meaningless things like "He expresses frustration at having to wait for his contact lenses to dry" as some sort of clue to his anti-social, sick world.
Then there will be the inevitable conclusions drawn about goths, that their "anti-social" lifestyle may pose a "danger" to society, that black clothes and piercings are a warning sign. And so goths will be painted with the brush of yet another threat to peace-loving citizens seeking safety from the dangerous world, that goth's cultish and dangerous anti-social iconoclasm is some kind of psychological gateway leading to mental illness and violent criminal behavior... And media consumers will nod in their customary stupefied agreement, happy for any soporific to ease their minds.
Of course such a claim makes as much sense as saying xtianity leads to bombing abortion clinics and sniping doctors in their home kitchens. But that won't stop Time & Newsweek from emblazoning their covers with slickly designed graphics of scary pallid pierced youths dressed in black and asking "Goths — Super-Mega-Dangerous-Satanic Anti-Social Death Cult Phenomenon. Why Their Fascination With Death?"
It's all nonsense, naturally, but dangerous nonsense that will only further stigmatize a demographic sector that has already willfully adopted the identity of society's Other (though, like most hippies of their day, to present themselves as belonging to a cool demographic where they can find a comfort with a peer group that safely rejects the status quo). Their wish to present themselves as rejecting the patent vapidity and mendacity of status quo reality creation is sincere (though, typically and ironically, is done by adopting the mediated consumer trappings of anti-consumerism), which makes them easier targets on which to blame social ills. And thus a new breed of red herring scapegoat is born, distracting the
Kimveer Gill makes it easy to attribute his spree shootings as the result of a raged-filled maniac who listened to death-metal rock and preferred guns to people. This will undoubtedly be the line taken by the official sources, and they would prefer to keep it that way.
But what about Charles Whitman? Lest anyone forget, the notorious Texas Tower Sniper, with a body count of 15+ dead and 31+ wounded, was as clean-cut as they come. His inspirational notes depict a solid citizen with a powerful superego who only wanted to do right by people. As seemingly opposite to Kimveer as they come.
And yet Kimveer and Whitman were as one in their chosen exit from life.
Whitman, in his squeeky clean world, lacked the personal and cultural tools to understand what was happening within him: he felt compelled by forces he couldn't articulate to commit his murders. His rage was bottled-in by a powerful super-ego that repressed an awareness of just what was brewing within him.
Kimveer, on the other hand, was provided with a demographic milieu that permitted him to give voice to his frustration. Sadly it was one that also fed it with its darkly oriented worldview. (Which is not to blame the Goth milieu in any way — reality is a rohrshach that presents itself as it is perceived: perception determines reality, which in turn confirms percpetion. The bible, for instance, can and has been used to justify and feed any ethic and philosophy.) Kimveer was all too aware of being mired in a raging and pestilential despair.
Both were depressed with the state of their world: Kimveer on a macro level with society at large; Whitman on the micro with his everyday world. Both were consumed by rage and hostility. Both expressed urges to kill lots of people.
But, just as with the unheard cries for help of successful suicides, Whitman's and Kimveer's cries were not taken seriously enough.
Though the specific causes of their distress were different, the feelings that resulted from them were all too similar. Like the various personalities of recovering alcoholics at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, there is one thing these spree killers share in common, a particular manifestation of the same illness. But in their case it's a particularly malignant symptom of a specifically modern illness.
These symptoms are well understood by a handful of insightful philosphers and artists like Albert Camus and Michael Haneke. And, surprisingly enough, it occurs quite commonly in the comic book world of Judge Dredd's MegaCity1. In fact, it's so common in the near-future world of MegaCity1 that it has its own name: futsie.
(Speaking of Judge Dredd, forget the film; the early comic books must count as one of the most sociologically (and politically) sagacious and prescient works of fiction in our time. The authors and artists exhibit a deep and intuitive understanding of our world.)
Futsie is variously defined in the world of Judge Dredd:
- The Futsie is an ordinary citizen who has grown stressed from the fast-paced life of Mega-City One - and has completely flipped out!
- Futsie is a common phenomenon on worlds experiencing a sudden and exponential technological increase, culture shock, or future shock; futsies are people who can't deal with the future.
- Futsie — a slang term for those suffering from "Future Shock", a madness caused by the stress of life in the giant, future city.
This "madness" caused by a specifically modern "stress of life" was explored in detail by the great psychologist Erich Fromm in his book The Sane Society, a madness peculiar to modern societies: alienation.
Because this is one of those issues that cannot be addressed in an easy-to-swallow facile one minute talking-head editorial, I will be quoting extensively from vital source material. To go right to the conclusion without first providing background would not only be a disservice to the weight of the matter, but it would, understandably, invite an automatic rejection as being patently ludicrous. So bear with this, because it matters.
We first need to revisit the ways in which personality is formed and determined by one's cultural and social milieu. As I said in a discussion of the development of zombie community (of which futsie is another face of the same die cube) "our identity and sense of reality are, ultimately, socially constructed." I then quote extensively from Peter Berger's exceptional Invitation to Sociology, of which the following is the most pertinent snippet for our discussion:
Identities are socially bestowed. They must also be socially sustained, and fairly steadily so. One cannot be human all by oneself and, apparently, one cannot hold on to any particular identity all by oneself. The self-image of the officer as an officer can be maintained only in a social context in which others are willing to recognize him in this identity. If this recognition is suddenly withdrawn, it usually does not take very long before the self-image collapses.
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Looked at sociologically, the self is no longer a solid, given entity that moves from one situation to another. It is rather a process, continuously created and re-created in each social situation that one enters, held together by the slender thread of memory.
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The individual, then, derives his world view socially in very much the same way that he derives his role and his identity. In other words, his emotions and his self-interpretation like his actions are predefined for him by society, and so is his cognitive approach to the universe that surrounds him. This fact Alfred Schuetz has caught in his phrase "world-taken-for-granted" — the system of apparently self-evident and self-validating assumptions about the world that each society engenders in the course of its history...Society predefines for us that fundamental symbolic apparatus with which we grasp the world, order our experience and interpret our own existence.
The brain, being the organic, material reality that is the repository of our personality, is literally hardwired by our society to make us who we are. Felix Guattari tells us how this incarnates in our times:
...the molecular texture of the unconscious is constantly being worked on by global society, that is to say, these days, by capitalism, which has cut individuals up into partial machines subjected to its ends, and has excluded or infused guilt into everything that opposed its own functionality. If has fabricated submissive children, "sad Indians," labor reserves, people who have become incapable of speaking, of talking things out, of dancing — in short, of living their desires. Capitalism mobilizes everything to halt the proliferation and the actualization of unconscious potentialities.
Hunh? Capitalism?! Oh, come on! It's a joke, right? What the hell is he talking about?
Wait, maybe Erich Fromm can help us out: alienation, he avers, is "the central issue of the effects of Capitalism on personality." Well, maybe there is a correlation. After all, we are defined by the world in which we are raised. If the two are related maybe we should look into it.
One of the primary aspects of alienation is the way in which it converts our experience of things, including people, into commodities via the psychological process of "abstractification":
In contemporary Western culture this polarity [perceiving objects in both their uniqueness and their generality; in their concreteness and their abstractness] has given way to an almost exclusive reference to the abstract qualities of things and people, and to a neglect of relating oneself to their concreteness and uniqueness. Instead of forming abstract concepts where it is necessary and useful, everything, including ourselves, is being abstractified; the concrete reality of people and things to which we can relate with the reality of our person, is replaced by abstractions, by ghosts that embody different quantities, but not different qualities.
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In other words, things are experienced as commodities, as embodiments of exchange value, not only while we are buying or selling, but in our attitude towards them when the economic transaction is finished...
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But the abstractifying and quantifying attitude goes far beyond the realm of things. People are also experienced as the embodiment of a quantitive exchange value...
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The process of abstractification, however, has still deeper roots and manifestations than the ones described so far, roots which go back to the very beginning of the modern era; to the dissolution of any concrete frame of reference in the process of life.
He then provides a litany of things — from the cosmologic to the economic — that reduce our sense of being in the world by the sheer enormity of the scale in which we find ourselves. The frame of reference in which to ascertain our experience of reality grows beyond our capacity of human understanding, further abstractifying our sense of concrete reality:
The dimensions with which we deal are figures and abstractions; they are far beyond the boundaries which would permit of any kind of concrete experience. There is no frame of reference left which is manageable, observable, which is adapted to human dimensions. While our eyes and ears receive impressions only in humanly manageable proportions, our concept of the world has lost just that quality; it does not any longer correspond to our human dimensions.
This is especially significant in connection with the development of modern means of destruction. In modern war, one individual can cause the destruction of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. He could do so by pushing a button; he may not feel the emotional impact of what he is doing, since he does not know the people whom he kills; it is almost as if his act of pushing the button and their death had no real connection. The same man would probably be incapable of even slapping, not to speak of killing, a helpless person. In the latter case, the concrete situation arouses in him a conscience reaction common to all normal men; in the former, there is no such reaction, because the act and his object are alienated from the doer, his act is not his anymore, but has, so to speak, a life and responsbility of its own.
(This is important to keep in mind: the man who can, in good conscience, wipe out a village at the push of a button is disconnected from his action via psychological distance, which we shall return to anon.)
This abstractification of experience leads to alienation, which Fromm defines thusly:
By alienation is meant a mode of experience in which the person experiences himself as an alien. He has become, one might say, estranged from himself. He does not experience himself as the center of his world, as the creator of his own acts — but his acts and their consequences have become his masters, whom he obeys, or whom he may even worship. The alienated person is out of touch with himself as he is out of touch with any other person. He, like the others, is experienced as things are experienced; with the senses and with common sense, but at the same time without being related to oneself and to the world outside productively.
Fromm then beautifully articulates what it means to live in a world where we experience each other as commodities for use:
What is modern man's relationship to his fellow man? It is one between two abstractions, two living machines, who use each other... Everybody is to everybody else a commodity, always to be treated with certain friendliness, because even if he is not of use now, he may be later. There is not much love or hate to be found in human relations of our day. There is, rather, a superficial friendliness, and a more than superficial fairness, but behind that surface is distance and indifference...
The alienation between man and man results in the loss of those general and social bonds which characterize medieval as well as most other precapitalist societies. Modern society consists of "atoms", little particles estranged from each other but held together by selfish interests and by the necessity to make use of each other. Yet man is a social being with a deep need to share, to help, to feel as a member of a group. What has happened to these social strivings in man? They manifest themselves in the special sphere of the public realm, which is strictly separated from the private realm. Our private dealings with our fellow men are governed by the principle of egotism, "each for himself, God for us all," in flagrant contradiction to Christian teaching. The invidivual is motivated by egotistical interest, and not by solidarity with and love for his fellow man.
What is the relationship of man toward himself? I have described elsewhere this relationship as "marketing orientation." In this orientation, man experiences himself as a thing to be employed successfully on the market. He does not experience himself as an active agent, as the bearer of human powers. He is alienated from these powers. His aim is to sell himself successfully on the market. His sense of self does not stem from his activity as a loving and thinking individual, but from his socio-economic role... That is the way he experiences himself, not as a man, with love. fear, convictions, doubts, but as that abstraction, alienated from his real nature, which fulfills a certain function in the social system. His sense of value depends on his success: on whether he can sell himself favoriably, whether he can make more of himself than he started out with, whether he is a success. His body, his mind and his soul are his capital, and his task in life is to invest it favorably, to make a profit of himself. Human qualities like friendliness, courtesy, kindness, are transformed into commodities, into assets of the "personality package," conducive to a higher price on the personality market. If the individual fails in a profitable investment of himself, he feels that he is a failure; if he succeeds, he is a success. Clearly, his sense of his own value always depends on factors extraneous to himself, on the fickle judgement of the market, which decides about his value as it decides about the value of commodities. He, like all commodities that cannot be sold profitably on the market, is worthless as far as his exchange value is concerned, even though his use value may be considerable.
The alienated personality who is for sale must lose a good deal of the sense of dignity which is so characteristic of man even in most primitive cultures. He must lose almost all sense of self, of himself as a unique and induplicable entity. The sense of self stems from the experience of myself as the subject of my experiences, my thought, my feeling, my decision, my judgement, my action. It presupposes that my experience is my own, and not an alienated one. Things have no self and men who have become things can have no self.
I think now we're in a position to try to solve the mystery.
(But let me first say that to suggest that Capitalism causes futsie is as absurd as suggesting that being raised by alcoholic parents causes alcoholism. But it is correct to say that these things are the soil in which the seeds of these illnesses can blossom.)
Breaching Walls: Connection & Community
Michael Haneke, cinema's greatest poet of alienation, understands all this. In his modernist masterpiece 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, he brilliantly illustrates the phenomenon of the futsie. The world Haneke depicts is populated by painfully alienated people who live by rote, not knowing how to connect to each other or themselves. Their world is completely mediated, one which desensitizes everybody to everybody else, beautifully illustrated by the constant presence of the television, in which all information is flattened and emptied of meaning, a world where horrible violence and injustice are just more bits of information to be passively consumed with dogfood commercials and celebrity gossip. People become innurred to existence, from each other, from themselves. Atrocities are no different than runway shows.
Haneke bravely and uncompromisingly requires the audience to connect the very difficult dots in his austere version of MegaCity1 to quietly illustrate how the stresses of modern life make someone snap into a futsie. A student, in seeking to pay for gas, gets frustrated in his desire for simple human connection: he is treated as a cog in the economic machine of commodity exchanges, trying to pay for gas but lacking change; his inability to complete the transaction is a monkey wrench in the smoothly functioning assembly line of mediated social interaction. He goes to a bank across the street to get change, but the lines are long, which means a long delay in moving his car away from the pumps for the next customers in the economic assembly line. His frustrations mount. All he wants is to be treated with courtesy, to allow the rules to bend so that he could quickly go to the front of the line to get change: to confirm that his needs, his very existence, is more important than the rote channels of social decorum. But this was denied him by the mediated cogness of impersonal social conditioning. (It's more than a coincidence that a bank is the seat of action here.) He seeks something real, a real connection, something that would acknowledge his existence as a human being, rather than as an economic unit breaking a smoothly functioning machinic assemblage; he wants the walls that separate people to momentarily open and allow him his needs. When this is denied him, when he feels that his basic human being-ness is negated, his frustration becomes so unbearable he snaps and becomes futsie: the irrevocable psychological snap that compels one to breach the walls of alienation to create authentic connection, to psychotically assert one's existence as a human being in a world — a world comprised of other human beings — that denies it.
And so it's not simply frustration that pushes one to this point. The futsie reaches a terminal stage of alienation that is an existential nullity, a point of singularity, like some kind of existential big bang, that explodes to breach the walls of unbearable alienation in a gesture of liberatory catharsis, one that creates a shared, communal moment of unmediated authenticity and connection before surrendering to complete annihilation.
Unlike the man who can wipe out a village with the push of a button because "death had no real connection", the futsie finds the real connection he craves in causing death. The futsie, in killing his victims personally rather than abstractly pushing a button, repudiates this very alienation: he craves the emotional impact of being connected with others: it is a rejection of the abstractification that allows a man to push a murder button in good conscience. The futsie craves reality, to feel connected to reality. Shooting others, watching them fall, hearing their screams, unmediated by movies or TV, being the cause of this reality, is an act of feeling that reality. He is creating an experience that breaks through the filters and gauze of mediated experience; he finally feels connected to an unmediated reality that he can legitimately claim to be of my choosing, my creation, my feeling, my decision, my judgement, my action, in a definitive, irrefutable, liberatory blaze of gunfire. It is his psychotic refusal to be a commodified, abstracted thing any longer, to reclaim his authentic self by creating an undeniably unabstracted connection with others.
But there's an inherently self-defeating paradox that undermines the futsie in his project. Only a human being can willfully commit such an inhumane act — that is the point. But what was an act of liberation, of breaching the mediated walls of alienation, is, finally, an act committed by rote: the futsie did not exercise free will in his act because he was compelled to do it by psychological forces beyond his control. The trap is sprung: their alienation is now absolute, for in their act they have completely lost the humanity that makes them human, thus rendering themselves inhuman; death must follow.
Lt. Col Dave Grossman, in his excellent book On Killing, quotes Fromm in a discussion of how psychological distance makes killing easier. This entails removing one's sense of empathy:
Erich Fromm states that "there is good clinical evidence for the assumption that destructive aggression occurs, at least to a large degree, in conjunction with a momentary or chronic emotional withdrawal."... Again, some of the mechanisms that facilitate this process include:
- Cultural distance, such as racial and ethnic differences, which permit the killer to dehumanize the victim
- Moral distance, which takes into consideration the kind of intense belief in moral superiority and vengeful/vigilante actions associated with many civil wars
- Social distance, which considers the impact of a lifetime of practice in thinking of a particular class as less than human in a socially stratified environment
- Mechanical distance, which includes the sterile Nintendo-game unreality of killing through a TV screen, a thermal sight, a sniper sight, or some other kind of mechanical buffer that permits the killer to deny the humanity of his victim
I would add to this list Existential distance, the place at which one reaches the terminal stage of alienation, a stage of absolute emotional withdrawal from oneself and his world. But in a paradoxical way, the futsie is seeking to bridge that psychological distance by turning people from things into humans in the act of killing them, thus connecting with them.
Downward Spiral: Alcoholism of the Soul
The line between love and hate is often very thin and fragile, particularly when ego identifies with and distorts the object of its desire and loses its moorings. (The opposite of love, remember, is not hate, but indifference.) (The movie Fatal Attraction, and the phenomenon of stalking a loved one, are commonly known examples of this.) When this reaches extreme levels on a family level we hear about one family's tragic murder/suicide; when this happens in relation to society as whole we read about a horrendous spree shooting.
I find the post dated September 12, 2006, 05:00:am titled Stop Bullying on Kimveer's weblog, very telling:
It's not only the bully's fault you know!!
It's the teachers and principals fault for turning a blind eye, just cuz it's not their job. You fuckers are pathetic.
It's the police's fault for not doing anything when people conplain (oops, my mistake, the cops are corrupt sons of whores, so it's not like they can do anything about it.)
FUCK THE POLICE
It's society's fault for acting like it's normal for people to be assholes to each other. Society disgusts me.
It's everyone's fault for being so apathetic towards fucking everything that doesn't affect them personally. FUCK YOU SOCIETY.
This is the cry of someone who doesn't hate people, but of someone who hates injustice and the authority figures who permit it to happen. This is the voice of someone whose love and concern for people is being morphed by rage and hatred and despair at the way people treat each other into a universalizing hatred of all people. He rails against apathy because he desperately wants people to connect with each other in an authentic way. This is the voice of someone who wants everyone to share in a life in which people can speak, can dance, can become actualized and fulfill their potentials; but things are so fucked that such a life isn't even conceivable.
And so Kimveer barricaded himself behind by an ever-thickening wall of thorns, nursing his hatred and despair as he receded further into himself, daring anyone to enter and pull him out; and yet, deep down, he hungered for it with an intensity too painful to look at.
His weblog is filled with the cries of someone who wants to connect, of someone who craves authenticity, of someone who seeks empathy and connection and instead finds only injustice and inauthenticity everywhere he looks. Here's a post entitled Hell on July 13, 2006, 07:25:am
People kill each other
Deceive and betray
Bullying and torturing each other at school
What kind of world is this? What the fuck is wrong with people. This world....this life, is worst than hell.
This is not the voice of someone who hates people. This is the voice of someone who loves people but hates injustice.
Reality, remember, is as it appears to the perceiver, thus confirming the perception of that reality. Kimveer's perception entered a closed loop where everything he saw in reality only confirmed his perception: universal injustice, phoniness, and apathy. Clearly he feels passionate rage at these things, just as countless others do. But Kimveer's rage and grief at the state of the world only increased his sense of alienation, pushing him further into himself. Solipsism is a safe but painful bubble into which to recede from a world that one wishes to connect to, but in which that connection is denied; it is the alcholism of the soul.
On January 26, 2006, 10:43:am in a post entitled My Own Prison he sums it up:
I am locked in an invisible cage within my head. There is no chance of escape.
Sadly, tragically, he was unable to apply the brakes that others apply when they enter the self-fulfilling downward spiral of alienation that leads to hellish solipsism: he became absorbed by his alienation, feeding it like a junkie, until the goth's garb of alienation that fit like a glove became indistinguishable from the skin itself: the separation between the actor and his role dissolved.
As Nietzsche famously said, "When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you." In allowing himself to drown in his alienation he became that which he most despised, leading to his decisive contribution of the Hell he was all too acutely aware of.
More than anything Kimveer longed for connection, justice, compassion, empathy. He wanted a world where people cared about each other, where justice has a chance, where society worked to nurture people to fulfill their potentials. Instead all he saw was a world that was fundamentally phony and irreperably broken, where there could be no bridge between the authenticity he craved and the reality he saw: the glass wasn't half empty, the glass was completely empty. His final act, impossible as it may seem on the surface, was his psychotic attempt to connect with others, to create community, even though it be a community in Hell, the only kind of community left to one at the terminal stage of alienation, when the failsafe filters of basic moral reason give way to the even more basic human longing to connect with others, no matter the cost.
And so futsie is a final act of release and liberation as much as one of desperation. It's a way to escape the prison of bleak solipsism, a tense and miserable island where the ego is supremely boxed in by an unfathomable sense of alienation, one that can no longer connect with a world that it longs to be part of.
Then, like a spring wound so taughtly that it blasts apart the mechanism when sprung, when something triggers the violent need to escape from that prison there is no turning back, for the psychical mechanisms have indeed "snapped". Unmediated connection must happen before annihilation: the futsie has refused to commit suicide alone, quietly, in solitude, precisely because of his need to connect with others: the futsie is creating authentic community in his suicide at the very nexus where love and hate, alienation and connection, yearning and despair, fuse into an explosive abysmal catharsis, a nihilistic rapture wherein the futsie can finally connect with others in death.