“A School Shooting”; or, Necropolitics Again

I went to bed and woke up with the same troubled conscience of all decent people. Yet another school massacre, and all the senses of hopelessness that come with the news. Knowing it is unspeakably sad and awful, knowing we’ll be here again sooner than later.

I didn’t wake up worrying about my kids at their school. I’ll be honest about that. I’ve gone there before, in the past, after a shooting. Perhaps it’s the dizzying nausea that came after letting my thoughts wander there, perhaps it’s just that intractable “it can’t happen to me” feeling, but either way, whatever the reason for self-protection, I didn’t and usually don’t go to worry and panic.

Instead, I go to frustration and resignation.

We know the spectacle. You can’t tell the photos apart at a certain point. They’re so familiar in this way: aerial shot, kids in an orderly line, parents stacked behind police tape trying desperately to see their child or children, to have confirmed that a beloved baby is alive, and you can feel the panic in their posture – leaning forward, peeking between bodies, or on tip toes as if life and death itself hung on the split second earlier you can confirm your baby’s life is alive.

I’m always struck by the blurriness of the image and the strange angles. It’s probably managing my own despair. I hear it in my head: all this technology, why isn’t the news image clearer? I don’t want an answer. I think I just want to look away at the same time I look. The children in a line thing is so awful and hard to behold. Kids learn to stand in line. That’s the primary task of kindergarten, in fact, along with sitting still. Then they drill for school shootings. So we see them displaying their training and drill and habits. Able to walk in line and straight.

PARKLAND, FL – FEBRUARY 14

I can barely type the word “teachers” as I imagine their moment. These are their babies too. Some are alive. Some are dead. And now we ask the teachers to keep everyone in calm order. In order. Later our nation will shit on them for having a union and demanding fair pay and decent work conditions. Think about those teachers, and that walk they do with the alive babies while knowing all the dead babies are being left behind, when someone questions their desire for reasonable compensation.

And then there is the social media aftermath, which is impossibly hard to watch. Endless thoughts and prayers from officials, but regular folks are also just as crass. It’s people not guns, so we can all keep our guns. Or the occasional venture into a demand to repeal the Second Amendment (put me in that crew). Or the left that scolds gun control demands with the same NRA rhetoric, this time dressed up in John Brown-inspired memes and appeals to radical justice. Each group either mocks or is outraged by the other groups. Some memes go viral. I like it when someone says concisely a wandering thought I also have. It’s a moment of pleasure. Fleeting, but a moment. All of it is in the horizon of so much sadness.

The truth of it all is worse than anyone would say out loud. I think that, in the end, our nation thinks, by and large, that these are just children, so who cares – after we learn to compartmentalize our sadness and outrage. This is a particularly ugly form of nihilism. But a familiar one.

When I woke up this morning, I started thinking again about how to think about all of this. Thinking about it is different than a policy decision or a solution. But thinking is important. Thinking is how we get some clarity about how we do, maybe even how we ought to, live.

Ours is an incredibly violent culture. Unapologetically so. Most of our television shows are about murder and sex crimes and the detectives/judges/lawyers who set things right. Or right-ish. It’s the go-to for dramas. Huge ratings. Reliable plot lines. Voyeurism about the gruesomeness out there.

We are not just violent, we are necropolitical. That is, our form of being-together and belonging is formed by a commitment to the relationship between freedom and the capacity to kill. I get this term and analysis from Achille Mbembe’s famous essay, of course. It is an amazing essay. Not an easy read, but worth it.

I teach the essay regularly, in a whole range of courses, and I’m amazed by how deeply it connects with my students. Because I teach in a Black Studies department, we frame our reading around the management of Black bodies, whether as colonial subjects, subjects of mass incarceration and social death, or the impunity of police murder of Black people.

One of the points of emphasis from me when I teach Mbembe’s essay is how this is not just a metaphysics of our political culture, nor is it just an account of how institutions are reproduced by a foundational value or ethic or ideology. It is also, if not foremost, the structure of our moral and political imagination. I mean just that we imagine freedom achieved through the claiming, reproduction, or re-claiming of the capacity to kill. Aggrieved angry white Americans experience freedom in the spectacle of dead Iraqis, Taliban soldiers, ISIS fighters if we’re international, or, nationally, in the names and faces of victims of police violence and murder. Think too of the satisfaction that comes from “law and order” rhetoric for so many millions of Americans, rhetoric that really has no mainstream counter-move, honestly. It’s also often a revolutionary imagination – that someday soon, the oppressed can take life. I’m thinking here, as much as anything, about Mbembe’s closing remarks on the martyr as necropolitical subject.

Under the stories of mental illness or gun availability or whatever the frame for this event – and they’re all important, most are true to some significant extent – lies the necropolitical compulsion. The assertion of sovereignty in the commit of mass murder, outside the law and into legend. Or the counter-move, the assertion of our future freedom through good guys with guns. The side road of “let’s keep guns for leftists too,” because that’s a vision of liberation, of a sovereignty to come; someday we too will kill.

It’s a hard theory to stomach. I think it’s true.

My students invariably ask: what’s after necropolitics? What more is there? What is the outside of this system of death and freedom? I don’t know. That’s the pessimism of Mbembe’s essay. Pessimism that is powerful because it is derived from a concept whose explanatory power is deep and strong. Sometimes the students shift from the conceptual to the personal – not just “what concepts are available to our imagination outside necropolitics?” but now “how do you deal with this pessimism, professor? What lies outside and gives you hope?” It’s a fair question. I accept it.

I tell them a lot of what I feel today, and every day after the newest spasm of murder. That there is no real answer. We’re all guessing and trying to get by, just that today, with the spasm of violence so fresh, our focus and attention is heightened.

Some get by better than others. That is also the violence of everyday life.

If our world is structured by violence, perhaps our task is not to fantasize apocalyptic events, world-inverting interventions, but instead to think harder and with more contentment about minimal violence, about de-escalation, about a wave of something that does violence against violence. The old-fashioned word for that is goodness. I’d be content with decency. Most of that, I suspect, will be in small places and in margins of life. We live in a big world and the center of it overwhelms everything. But there is resistance and meaning in margins and small places, even if it means, at one and the same time  and irreducibly so, that we abandon others as we come to ourselves and our intimates. Learning to live there is an experience of failure-to-come, a sense of having done much too little.

But it is something. And we need some somethings.

From those somethings, hopefully something more.

Hopefully.

That’s the trace of hope.