Recognition Through Violence

Within a few hours of the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, the film critic Roger Ebert made a provocative observation in a New York Times essay:

I don’t know if James Holmes cared deeply about Batman. I suspect he cared deeply about seeing himself on the news…

…Like many whose misery is reflected in violence, he may simply have been drawn to a highly publicized event with a big crowd. In cynical terms, he was seeking a publicity tie-in.

I don’t want to dismiss the extreme nature of Holmes’ obvious mental illness. Like psychiatrists say about Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, Holmes might suffer from schizotypal personality disorder. Certainly he suffers from serious disturbances.

I do, though, want to make two additional points: 1) Recognition through violence is a common theme in American culture; 2) In the age of Facebook, Twitter and reality television, everyone seems to have access to a significant audience, but the recognition it brings is, usually, an illusion. When everyone’s a star, no on is a star.

Thinking a little about these things might open some avenues for understanding the epidemic of mass killings and other violent episodes in our recent history.

First, what do I mean by recognition? Isaiah Berlin said it best in his essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty”:

What I may seek to avoid is simply being ignored, or patronized, or despised, or being taken too much for granted – in short, not being treated as an individual, having my uniqueness insufficiently recognized, being classed as a member of some featureless amalgam, a statistical unit without identifiable, specifically human features and purposed of my own. This is the degradation that I am fighting against – I am not seeking equality of legal rights, nor liberty to do as I wish (although I may want these too), but a condition in which I can feel that I am, because I am taken to be, a responsible agent, whose will is taken into consideration because I am entitled to it, even if I am attacked and persecuted for being what I am or choosing as I do.

All humans want such recognition. But two things combine in our culture to make it problematic: the celebration of individualism and a mass culture which renders the individual invisible.

The viability of violence as a road to recognition may be uniquely exaggerated in America. Cultural historian Richard Slotkin wrote of “regeneration” rather than “recognition,” but the centrality of violence to the pursuit is the same:

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The Blood of Eden

Pollock's "The Deep"

I caught sight of my reflection
I caught it in the window
I saw the darkness in my heart
I saw the signs of my undoing
They had been there from the start

So many American bodies are sprayed with blood, their own, their lover’s, their mother’s and father’s, their brother’s and sister’s. Oh we are so certain of our innocence, but we are a nation tattooed in crimson, eyes to belly, with Jackson Pollock’s The Deep.

We called it a New World then carved a Trail of Tears for those who knew it to be ancient: the Choctaw, the Cherokee, the Seminole. And now we walk that Trail ourselves, lost and tormented, crying for Gabrielle Giffords, U.S. Judge John Roll and the other victims of the Tucson shootings.

The “Rawhide Orator,” Choctaw Chief George Washington Harkins, in 1831 wrote to the American people before leaving for the Trail of Tears:

I could cheerfully hope, that those of another age and generation may not feel the effects of those oppressive measures that have been so illiberally dealt out to us; and that peace and happiness may be their reward.

A cheerful hope, and one unfulfilled, as the ghosts of dead immigrants whisper to us from the Arizona desert.

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