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Notes on Understanding the UCSB Killings

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The challenge is to see the killings as reasonable and normal.


This injunction appears insensitive at best. That is because this article is not about people; it is about logics. It is my belief that if we are interested in people, we must first be interested in the systematic ways they come to understand the world and organize their lives. I term these systems ‘logics,’ and this article examines how logics are at work in our reaction to the UCSB killings.


Some may feel this is too much too soon, or insensitive to those who lost loved ones. To those who lost loved ones, I am truly sorry for your loss. Nothing can replace them, and I cannot imagine what it is like to be in that situation right now.


The vast majority of us will experience these events as media events. Not a firsthand experience of shock and terror, but instead a refracted experience of shock and terror and advertising. It is this experience that we will examine today.


Note 1. What is the mass media story doing?

We must at once be relentlessly concrete, almost to the level of stupidity. What is actually going on in the media story? There is a set of horrific events. They are reported on and appear senseless. The media story expands in an effort to reorient people so they can understand the situation (“we’ll keep you updated as the situation develops”).


This is the first level of what is going on. An exceptionally violent set of events challenges the stability of our everyday narratives. Our cognitive maps of the world suddenly seem incapable of telling us which way is up. In steps the media (in reality they stepped in beforehand – that’s how we were destabilized in the first place) to tell us our right from our left, so long as we keep watching, watching, watching…


Note 2. What is the media story made of?

What does the ‘story’ actually consist of? Concretely speaking it consists of three things. An idiosyncratic personal history of the killer. His associations with various groups (PUAhate, bodybuilding.com). And the fetish of his ‘digital trail’ (deleted forum posts! Youtube videos!).


These details serve to create a life-picture of the individual who pulled the trigger. This life-picture will bear the weight of being an explanatory vehicle for the actions. These acts of violence that are so hard to comprehend will be made digestible with a specific (and specifying) description of the killer. His motives, his psychology, his interiority. This is what will be produced as the reason why.


Foucault 101. The personnage (character) is invented in order to substantiate some locus for responsibility, an application point for discipline and punishment. Much like the construction of the author as the body responsible for heresy in the event of writings that contravened Church doctrine, the media personnage is also the juridical personnage. The party responsible, culpable, and subject to State violence in the name of justice.


Note 3. The visible and invisible stories

“Generating a secret medium and unique blindness. A seeing blindness” (Akira Lippit, “The Derrida that I Love”, 2005 Grey Room MIT).


“[What is invisible is] the singular body of the visible itself [not something missing, but what’s there], right on the visible—so that, by emanation, and as if it were secreting its own medium, the visible would produce blindness” (Derrida,  Memoirs of the Blind, quoted in Lippit, “The Derrida that I Love”).


There is a secret interplay here, between the visible and the invisible. Caution! It is easy to think the invisible as the opposite (negative) of the visible. Instead, we must think both of them as positive forms of the image. Then we can ask, what secret (secreted) medium is at work in our media story?


To get a handle on this, we can ask, what is the media spectator blind to, in the sense that it is “right on the visible?” What is the positive condition of her media field that structures and conditions its existence in the first place? And when we get there, what will we find?


The visible is easy, so let’s start there. We identified it Note 2. It is the idiosyncratic personal history of the killer, his associations with various groups, and the fetish of his digital trail. It is his life-picture, what produces him as a specific (specified) personnage.


The invisible is the social logics responsible for producing the person who pulled the trigger. It is not the negative of the visible, but instead the specific conditions that allow for the existence of the visible in the first place. If you like, think of it as the cell culture that permitted the growth of the particular organism (specimen) the media is now busy dissecting.


Importantly, these social logics are themselves a type of invisible sustenance that structures and conditions the social field as a whole. Social logics are the systematic operators that construct our cognitive maps. They provide the grammars for our personal narratives: who we are, who others are, what our place in the world is, etc. By necessity, the map we use to navigate our world obscures its etiology. The subject is blind, and this blindness is what we call vision, understanding, orientation. It is a unique blindness, and it is the situation to which our mass media story attempts to return us.


Note 4. Blindness

The life-picture of the killer the media story produces is a distraction. It is the effect of a salvific operation, but what is being saved is not the spectator, but rather the social logics that structure the accepted universe in which the media (and by implication, the spectator) operates. These are none other than the dominant logics of our time and place (e.g. capital, patriarchy, race, pathologization of neurodiversity, etc.).


Some readers may object – “but the media is talking about his misogyny, his racism!” (But the importance sentence is not “he hates women.” It is, “our society is predicated on the control of women…”) Hold judgment for just a moment longer, and let us follow two lines of obfuscation produced by the dominant media story.


First we must consider the point of view of the narrative. It is relentlessly personal, about him. We should understand this positionally. Imagine, if you will, an array of sensors, probes and needles, hovering about the corpse of our killer, measuring, cutting, dissecting, pinning folds of skin back. This is what is happening. Interiority is being produced.


Interiority functions to localize the killings as an isolated point of aberration in an otherwise smoothly functioning social machine. It was this guy, this crazy guy, who went mental and started killing people. In this manner we are led to believe we are seeing a story about a deranged individual, consumed by hate. In reality, the story is about us, about our specific conditions for blindness (vision), and what moves must be made to hide from us the horror of our social logics: this news item is a feature, not a bug. This is what happens when the social machine operates as currently designed.


Second, in a perverse refraction, we will use his associations to paint a grade-school level social analysis of what could have made him so crazy. “Oh, it was his quest for an exaggerated masculinity. Oh, he was insane. Oh, he was a dork who didn’t fit in. Oh, he was depressed. Oh, he had no social skills with women.” [n1] For the mainstream media these apparently social factors serve to re-individualize the actions, to make them specific again.


This young man was bad with women. This young man was ill. This young man was incapable of fulfilling social interaction. There will be the idiots who applaud his actions, and those who rightly condemn them, and the ping pong punditry will dutifully parrot the so-called ‘debate,’ complete with superficial levels of nuance.


What is lost here is the need to insist on these actions as completely normal and reasonable. As inevitable outcomes of the social logics we use to construct our world. This is what is at stake in the critiques of capitalism, of patriarchy, of race, of all the dominant logics of our time. What is called for is not an empty promise to do better (be less sexist, be less racist, always an individual effort…), but the need to abandon reliance on ways of structuring our world that in turn create monsters. And what must be noted is that we are all those monsters. The monstrosity is what we call ‘society.’


Through these micro-stories blame will pass through a social logic and return to roost in the individual. It will be our center stage actor who was insufficient, obsessed, abnormal, different. As should be obvious, the presiding social logics are preserved at all costs. It was this man who was incapable of manhood, incapable of fitting in, of ‘passing’ for male. The focus is on the individual’s failure to fit, not on the social logic’s requirement to produce failures.


Thus the life-picture approach isolates the dominant social logics from critique in two ways. Structurally from the point of view, the events are localized to a specifically abnormal body – this crazy guy – in order to protect the social logics as a whole. Mechanically, the movement of emphasis, blame, and normality moves in a loop, from the individual –> social logic –> individual. This guy failed this social expectation and therefore took violent action.


Instead we should say, these social logics produce these internal frictions every day in a multitude of ways, which in some sad cases culminate in spectacularly obvious outbursts of violence. But the friction, the threat of failure, the promise of punishment if one does not comply, is there always. This is the condition of our existence. Life today is life under fear, and our failure to identify social logics as responsible is due in no small part to the fact that they lack a name and a face.


Note 5. Whiteface

It must be noted that the person who pulled the trigger is white. Thus, our quest to understand him will require relentless humanization. His life-story will be meticulously reconstructed (or, as all media events really are, constructed for the first time). We will likely hear from his family members, friends, see childhood photos, grapple with terms like ‘depression’ and ‘mental illness.’ We will be asked to identify.


Not so for people of color who pull triggers. For them, there are inferior social logics that already instruct us how to understand. Of course he killed all those people, we always knew blacks were dangerous. Of course he went on a shooting rampage, he was Chinese (no surprise given that the word ‘Chinese’ literally meant confused not too long ago in this country). Of course he killed those people, he was brown and Muslims hate us for our freedoms (note: not all brown people are Muslims, not all Muslims are brown). In the difference between our responses based on color we can unveil an ordering of social logics and the bodies they manage, a materially consequential hierarchy of discursively produced life.


Note 6. The digital fetish

We have now analyzed two of the three portions of the story: the killer’s idiosyncratic personal history, and his various associations. We now turn to the third, the “Internet footprint,” or “digital trail” fetish.


Reporters are falling over themselves to discover new forum posts, pick apart Youtube channel subscriptions, rehash social media, etc. In this flurry of activity a catalog must be produced, a handy guide for understanding what the various online communities the killer belonged to are about. A typology of sorts, even if only a lingering appositive after a title (“PUAhate, an anti-pickup artist forum…”).


With classification comes the possibility of specifying. With specification, the possibility of identifying. With identification, the possibility of predicting. With prediction, the possibility of preventing. Thought-crime is not the future, it is the present and this is its birth story.


As part of taking the point-of-view of the social machine we see the person who pulled the trigger as a dangerous abnormality that must be stopped. No more 9/11′s. In the name of security unlimited police state powers will be demanded to manage bodies, organize data-stories, and dispense State-ordained violence as justice.


Note 7. This is outsourcing

The social logics that produce dangerousness in the first place export their dangerousness onto individual bodies, in the case of the attendant logic of mass surveillance, and inferior groups in the case of subordinate social logics that organize the lives of the colored, poor, feminine, etc. The social logics actually responsible for the production of danger are of course the dominant ones, capital, patriarchy, etc. Yet their production of intense internal friction in the bodies of persons who cannot find a way to fit in are then used as precisely the reason for their amplification, not their destruction. The cycle reinforces itself as mass surveillance expands. Watch all the bodies, lest one falls out of line.


And again, the structural equation must be considered. Always ask – keep who safe? From whom? In our world, where over 50% of targets of police violence require mental health care, where one in four prisoners worldwide is in an American prison (the highest incarceration rate globally), where more blacks are imprisoned now than ever were enslaved, we must keep this crucial fact in mind. The subject is blind. The supposedly neutral call for safety (enveloped in the crisp, accent-free cadence of the anchorperson, whose speech always seems to comment on speech but never explicitly speak…) is never neutral. Where the naïve political theorist and nighttime talk-show host both see a lowest common denominator, a common ground for politics, we see only the articulations of a specifically frightened, paranoid subject. The product of specific social logics’ cartography.


Note 8. Freedom

It must be noted that this time of highest unfreedom, when the individual is always sacrificed for the continuity of the dominant social logics, corresponds with what the unthinking historians label as the era of greatest freedom in human history: liberal democratic market capitalism. You are free to be whatever you want, so long as your choices generate profit (social profit too, e.g. social standing) within these limits.


The possibility for self-expression is transformed into the potential for risk. Individuals present themselves not as opportunities for creative invention, but as risk factors to be managed, assessed and controlled in the administration of increasingly concentrated life.


Or, they present themselves as profit potentials. The formula of Hollywood reigns supreme, with minor variations within its two poles standing in for human evolution. Familiar, but different. So you think you can dance? America’s got talent!


Anything else and the mechanism lays itself bare, betrays itself and follows through on its promise. In this light, even the aberration of this killer can only be seen as part and parcel of the normal, routine functioning of our social machine. The killing is not just a tragedy, but a tragedy with a use. A cautionary tale about what happens to those who do not adjust (you will commit acts of horror, and become horrific yourself), and a self-preserving warning for those who are adjusted to encourage (‘help’) others to do the same. All together now, fall in line.


[n1] The simplistic mainstream media analysis should not be confused with the significant work being done by feminist bloggers, who rightly point out that the ready pathologization of mental illness (for which there appears to be little evidence) offers a scapegoat for a media incapable of seriously discussing violence against women.