Volume 13, Number 1 (January 2016)
Author: Dr. William Pawlett
The purpose of this chapter is to begin re-thinking the phenomenon of ‘spree killing’ from the perspective introduced in chapters one and two. It considers academic responses to the mass killings in Columbine, Colorado, USA in 1999, and then develops an analysis of the shootings in Whitehaven, Cumbria, UK in 2010 and the Oslo attacks of 2011. These events are interpreted primarily through an application of Georges Bataille’s notions of general economy, transgression and sovereignty, and Jean Baudrillard’s notion of symbolic exchange. Drawing on these sources, what is designated ‘a killing spree’ by much media and popular opinion is re-thought as a mode of defiance. Defiance is understood within general economy or symbolic exchange as a wresting of life and death from their control by modern rationalities.1 The chapter challenges the ways in which the reductive apparatus of explanation, marshalled by academic and security discourse, produces the phenomenon of ‘spree killing’ and prevents the emergence of a more critical social analysis. This approach aims to move beyond social constructionist and culturalist accounts of the ‘representation’ of violence, in part by restoring a sense of agency to those who commit these acts, understanding such attacks as singular modes of communication.
On June 2nd 2010 Derrick Bird, a well-liked and sociable taxi driver aged 52, murdered twelve people, seriously injured eleven, then shot himself. He began by killing his brother, shot eleven times at point blank range; later he attacked strangers, most were shot in the face (Leigh 2010). The packaging of this event by the corporate media and the security services produced Bird, almost instantaneously, as ‘spree killer’: the lone, unhinged gunman committing ‘inexplicable’ atrocities. Journalists, the police and politicians rushed in to appropriate this event, stamping it with any meaning available. It was announced, portentously, that Bird had a “dark side” and was a “porn user” (BBC news website, May 2011). Media coverage of the attack was intensive but short-lived and, using expert opinion reduced the shock to the safe level of info-tainment. Any further more reflective thinking was deferred by calls for a public enquiry – which never materialised – and Bird was safely classified in the annals of popular crime as ‘spree killer’ (see for example the Wikipedia entry on Bird).
The concept of the ‘spree killer’ is generated from familiar catalogues of social stresses and frustrations fashioned into an explanation or descriptive context for these crimes. Yet such conceptualisations are post-hoc; only after the attacks can the identities or psychological states of these ‘spree killers’ be branded as deviant. Both the explanatory and contextual factors that are offered are usually strikingly banal, for example that the perpetrators were bullied at school or experienced pressures in their community, workplace or personal relationships. The obvious conclusion – though it is one that cannot be accepted by the politicians, media organisations and security services who seek to orchestrate mainstream opinion – ought to be that ‘spree killers’ are ordinary people, they are ‘normal’, to the extent that anyone is ever ‘normal’. Mainstream responses to these events are inconsistent: they label the attacks ‘senseless’ or ‘inexplicable’, yet often also perceive a causal chain consisting of an accumulation of social, economic, cultural and psychological influences leading to the attack. This binary opposition: ‘senseless’ versus ‘over-determined’, prevents or forecloses further critical thinking and so is useful to agencies of social control. Indeed, the unwillingness of these agencies to question the nature of modern society and its techniques of control and to recognise acts of defiance against these controls, all buried beneath the jargon of security, underscores the vital importance of re-invigorated critical thinking. The aim here is to suggest an alternative theorisation of ‘spree killing’ by breaking with the matrix of assumptions that structure popular, criminological and security-focussed accounts. Few thinkers have worked harder than Bataille and Baudrillard, at the margins of critical theory, to break with dominant assumptions concerning the relationship between violence, society and social control.
‘Spree killing’ is defined by the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation, Behaviour Analysis Unit official website) as the killing of two or more people in a short space of time with no “cooling off” period. Other terms in popular usage include rage murder and ‘running amok’. Terminological disputes arise from the difficulties involved in imposing identity or homogeneity on such attacks. However, these killings can be seen as a form of excess in Georges Bataille’s sense, as “heterological” phenomena, exceeding social scientific explanation and confronting us, as subjects, with horror. Yet horror, Bataille argues, cannot be confronted by the subject; horror must be rejected, expelled or else assimilated. Indeed, horror and excess are now expelled by assimilation, by their informationalisation, by becoming entertainment. While mainstream society assimilates such horrific events as entertainment, academic disciplines expel extreme violence as inappropriate to scholarly analysis, or as insufficiently statistically frequent to merit investigation.
More than merely criminal, could ‘spree killing’ be seen as sacrificial, transgressive and communicative acts in Bataille’s sense? At the outset, Bataille’s approach would suggest that the definitional boundaries that produce ‘spree killing’ are challenged by “general economy”. General economy is a theoretical and methodological perspective that explores the expenditure, sacrifice or burning up [dépense] of resources (energy, wealth, life, knowledge). Expenditure must occur, at some point, within any system because the accumulation of resources will reach a limit, as all systems are necessarily limited or “restricted” economies. The “accursed share” is the portion of energy which cannot be usefully deployed in accumulation or growth and so exceeds the system’s functional limits. Excess can only be wasted, squandered. For example, human life can be seen in terms of restricted economy as consisting of growth, work and reproduction; however, life will be interrupted or wasted by death, the ultimate manifestation of general economy. General economy, as approach, will probe the excess or “accursed share” of ‘spree killing’, that which exceeds the boundaries marked out by disciplines such as sociology and criminology as they construct explanatory or contextual accounts.
From Bataille’s perspective scholarly disciplines typically are (very) “restricted” economies; they produce facts by systematically and “coldly” weighing evidence, preserving the fiction of the investigator’s neutrality and ability to wield stable concepts in a transparent manner. General economy as methodology, by contrast, retains “the rules of rigorous investigation” but acknowledges, indeed insists upon, the researcher’s affective relation to the subject which drives, even “enflames” them (Bataille in Stoekl (Ed) 1988: 10). The accursed share exceeds all limits: social, psychological, conceptual, ethical, yet there must be limits. General economy acknowledges limits and acknowledges that limits will be exceeded; indeed it allows a place for the exceeding of limits – social, moral and conceptual, recognising that limits could have no meaning if there was not an excess that might shatter or suspend them. By contrast restricted economies fail to recognise limits, especially when crossing them, confining phenomena but refusing to acknowledge this confinement. Thus ‘spree killing’ is produced as explanandum or genre of violence within the restricted economies of discipline-bound accounts. The ‘excessiveness’ of spree killing resides less in the ferocity of its violence – there are many forms of extreme violence – than in its disabling of the explanatory apparatus of psychological, criminological and ‘security’ discourse, at the same time as it fascinates entertainment-hungry global audiences.
‘Spree killing’, thus constituted, appears to be a growing and a globalising phenomenon. Its basic pattern is discernable in many different locations and cultural contexts: in Europe, in Asia, in Australia and New Zealand, as well as innumerable occasions in the USA. There are ‘spree killers’ drawn from the professions, and female ‘spree killers’ too, though these currently remain very rare. To paraphrase Emile Durkheim (1970), we might say that modern capitalist societies have an “aptitude” for ‘spree killing’, just as they do for high levels of suicide, suggesting that there is something seriously wrong with these societies. Popular accounts of spree killing (Wilson and Wilson 1995; O’Brien 2001) tend to assume the essential ‘pathology’ of the individual perpetrators which is said to explain their ‘senseless’ acts. Such accounts work tautologically to make the attacks seem almost inevitable: the ‘time-bomb waiting to go off’ (O’Brien 2001). In contrast, academic studies (Leyton 1989; Collier 1998; Newman 2004; Ames 2007, Ray 2011) elaborate the psychological and, sometimes, social and economic ‘contexts’ of such events, often these factors are claimed to be cumulative. One effect of these (very) restricted economies is to rob the events they discuss of their singularity and intensity. By inserting these attacks within a ‘context’ from which their meanings are read-off the agents lose their agency and fullness. These ‘contexts’ range from the ambiguous position of masculinity in late modernity (Collier 1998), the nature of modern school and college environments (Newman 2004), to the nature of the workplace under neo-liberalism (Ames 2007). That which cannot be explained in contextual fashion tends to be quarantined under the category ‘inexplicable’, and is often surreptitiously re-housed within the ‘identity’ of the attacker as evidence of their pathology. Micro-sociological or socio-psychological theories of violence offered by Katz (1988), Polk (1994) and Collins (2008) are rich in detail but poor in theorisation. They produce as explanatory context violent interactional situations, typically male-on-male confrontations, however, their notions of what constitutes interaction are often mechanical and, worse, are divorced from social critique.
Seen as restricted economies, none of the accounts are ‘wrong’ but it does not follow that their combination somehow approximates or gathers the truth. These accounts function by confining the attacks to a ‘context’, reifying and stabilising what are volatile, ambivalent affective (but not ‘psychological’) relations. By engaging with Bataille and Baudrillard’s thinking we may achieve a richer sense of what is commonly called ‘social interaction’, one more commensurate with the intensities of these attacks. Further, ‘spree killings’ need not be seen only as revealing a ‘negative image’ of society, as evidence of deficiencies in schooling, the workplace or community, they may also be seen as expressive or creative, as social and communicative acts in their own right. Not merely in Durkheim’s sense that crime is evidence that society has not become stagnant, “immutable” and incapable of further evolution (Durkheim 1982: 101), but in Bataille’s (related) sense of transgression as the core dynamic of social relations (discussed below). The attacks of ‘spree killers’ can be seen as intense symbolic communications with a community, charged by the force of violating the fundamental moral prohibition in the taking of innocent lives, yet dependent upon that social prohibition for their force as communicative acts. They may be acts which we want to morally condemn, but nevertheless they are over-flowing with symbolic meanings that cannot be contained by structural ‘contexts’ of individual, psychological ‘grievance’ or alienation (see Baudrillard, 1975). As an act of communication which, in Bataille’s sense “dissolves” the individualism of the agent, spree killing is social or collective in the fullest sense. In this sense, ‘spree killing’ can be contrasted with both ‘serial killing’ and terrorist hostage-taking. The latter target the individual as representatives of society, while spree killing is directly an attack on a collectivity, it is immediately the concern of the group.
The supposedly inexplicable nature of ‘spree killing’ resides partly in the apparent absence of utilitarian purpose, rationality or ‘profit’ on the part of those who commit these crimes. These attacks not only violate the sanctity of life, perhaps more disturbingly they violate the modern values of self-appropriation and the maximization of potential. Such events result in no clear ‘gain’ for the aggressors, not even one of a morally inadmissible kind such as sadistic pleasure or power; hence Zizek’s theories of violence and sadism seem to have little purchase because it is not clear that pleasure, ‘kicks’ or sexual satisfaction are gained in these attacks (Zizek 1997: 3-44; 2008). Such attacks do not afford the distancing (or limit) between aggressor and victim characteristic of sadistic pleasures – a luxury that is available to consumers of the mediatised events of ‘spree killing’. Even achieving long-term notoriety is uncertain given the increasing prevalence of these attacks. Further, the attacks often end with the suicide of the perpetrators, or they are killed by the police (the Oslo killings, where Anders Breivik survived and was later put on trial is discussed below). At Dunblane Primary School in 1996 and at Columbine High School in 1999 and in recent cases in Scandinavia, America and Britain, the perpetrators’ own lives ended at the sites where they murdered others. These events were ‘sacrificial’ then in a double sense. The victims of the shootings were ‘sacrificed’ in the sense that their lives were ended, deliberately, spectacularly, in a sudden and tragic event, in which the victims were largely innocent. In Bataillean terms the ‘sacrificial’ form of these events is even more marked by the youth of the victims, meaning that more life was squandered. The aggressors also died at the scene in acts of self-sacrifice or sacrificial-suicide: the ‘spree killer’ may be considered both sacrifice and sacrificer. Finally, spree killing attacks are assaults on a group, not an isolated individual, and are thereby closer to the ‘sacrificial’ as collective event. A fuller understanding of ‘spree killing’ may be possible if the phenomenon is located within the framework of the general economic circulation of violence in society. The necessary limits to this alternative approach are discussed in the final section.
II. Violence and Society
“Killing is a transgression of the prohibition of murder. In essence, transgression is a sacred act. Legal killing is profane and as such is inadmissible”(Bataille 1991:253). For Bataille, influenced by Durkheim (1961), violent social acts were originally associated with the sacred, and were experienced and directed through ritual. Acts of violence that occurred outside of a ritual process were considered trivial or meaningless, or were brought within ritual space and so conferred meaning. Sacred ritual suspended the sphere of profane, utilitarian activities and allowed the affirmation of the intense values that formed the “sacred core” of society (Bataille in Hollier (Ed.) 1988: 113-124; 1989: 123). The erection and periodic transgression of limits is, for Bataille, the very essence of society or social being. Indeed, sacred violence or transgression was required by the social order to symbolise, protect and regenerate itself, society must define limits for there to be transgression. Without the suspension of the economic sphere by the sacred, societies over-produce, generating social inequalities and entrenched hierarchies, and also lose the means of revitalising themselves through communal effervescence or festivity.2 The reading of ‘spree killing’ attacks, developed below, explores the idea that moments of the suspension of everyday ‘profane’ life, and the subjectivities this life demands, are a crucial component of these lethal attacks. In a social system that recognises no limits, outsides or alternatives, a system which saturates geo-political and mental space, finding a moment of suspension – a moment not subordinated to the demands and anxieties of everyday life, identity and the future – can become an urgent necessity. Bataille’s term for such moments or experiences is “sovereignty”.
If modern societies have lost the dynamic and rejuvenating alternation between the limits of production and their ritual transgression, transgression has no place in collective experience. However, Bataille suggests that transgression reappears in ‘individualised’ form: we passionately desire to lose or erase ourselves, and we do so frequently in drunkenness, laughter and eroticism, before we are finally lost in death. Sovereign experience is “essentially the refusal to accept the limits that the fear of death would have us respect … the sovereign is as if death were not” (1991: 221-2). Further, Bataille argues, “in a fundamental way the impetus of the sovereign man makes a killer of him” (1991: 220).
By killing, he escapes the subordination he refuses, and he violently rids himself of the aspect of a tool or a thing, which he had assumed only for a time. At this price, sovereign existence is restored to him … killing is not the only way to regain sovereign life, but sovereignty is always linked to the denial of the sentiments that death controls. Sovereignty requires the strength to violate the prohibition against killing … it also calls for the risk of death (Bataille 1991: 221-2).
For Bataille there is a vital reciprocal movement of mutual loss in sovereign experience. In no sense does he endorse the criminality of, for example, the serial killer or ‘hitman’, accumulating a number of ‘kills’. It is fundamentally the killing, sacrifice or death of the self, the abandonment of accumulation or self-interest that is crucial for Bataille, also exemplified in his idea of eroticism as a mutual loss or sacrifice of self enacted by the lovers (Bataille 1986: 106).
Modern societies’ failure to set aside a place for transgression makes inevitable the emergence of extreme violence “set free on all sides” (Bataille 1989: 87-104). For Bataille, destruction or profitless loss (dépense), once the realm of the sacred, must be revived and practiced collectively through new rituals of expenditure. Only through collective and consensual rituals of expenditure, such as once existed in the Potlatch ceremony of North Western American indigenous peoples (see Mauss 1990; Bataille 1988a: 63-77) is the catastrophe of ideological quasi-sacrificial expenditure, such as war, avoided (This excess can take many forms: war, racial hatred, genocide and the environmental destruction associated with consumerist lifestyles, on the latter see Stoekl, 2007). The choice for western societies, as Bataille poses it, is between intense yet ambivalent social values (the sacred as revealed by ritual violence, the affirmation of death and evil – the left pole of the sacred) and domesticated, ‘positive’ yet weak values. The latter confine human experience by failing to define limits and their transgression, they aim at a complete circuit of control.
Further, Bataille asserts, societies which lack the means for collective expenditures and so cannot generate values which inspire or unite will nevertheless generate unanticipated, a-social expenditures: new manifestations of the “accursed share”. The fundamental question then is not how is violence to be eliminated, but when, where and in whose name violence is expended. (Bataille does not advocate a return to institutional religious values since he argues that these values are already compromised by utilitarian and productivist criteria, see Bataille, 1989).
Today’s rampant or ‘excessive’ consumerism remains a fundamentally individualist activity, and, for Baudrillard, consumerism is a simulated form of festivity and one that systematically deters the possibility of a more fundamental “symbolic” revolt (Baudrillard 1993a: 6-7; 1998a: 174-179). Baudrillard certainly does not claim that politics or resistance is impossible. He cites May 1968 as an event which “shook the system down to the depths of its symbolic organisation” (see Baudrillard 1993a: 34), and Baudrillard 2003). Both Bataille and Baudrillard theorise consumer capitalist societies as systems which expand exponentially, absorbing dissent, resistance and alternatives. Such systems may appear unassailable, yet in their chronic over-accumulation and failure to expend, sacrifice, or even share wealth equitably, there lies a fatal vulnerability. Growth cannot be unlimited; wealth must also be expended because the expenditure of wealth is what gives societies (and individuals) their most intense experiences, their richest meanings, their “marrow” (Baudrillard 1983: 66). In social systems of massive and ever-extending inequalities of wealth, the privileged consume their wealth privately which far from generating social cohesion further erodes it – fertile soil for violent defiance.
Baudrillard adds two distinct dimensions in his conceptualisation of the power of the capitalist system: its symbolic foundations and the proliferating matrix of signs, simulations and virtuality which sustain it. The hegemony exercised by the capitalist system is based, for Baudrillard, on its power to give; to give life, to give goods and services, to give identity and well-being, to give security – all without possibility of reciprocation. This is its symbolic violence, the source of its dominance and the foundation upon which the edifice of signs is constructed. By defining and conferring ‘life’ as productive value and by separating and segregating ‘death’ as its opposite and terminus, the system and its power-brokers seize a fundamental, symbolic hold over citizen-consumers. This symbolic stranglehold is based on an irredeemable symbolic debt consisting in the “slow death” of labour – the administered existence of the consumer based not on forced passivity, but on an obligation to choose in an unending operational interactivity – sustained by the humiliation of a permanent indebtedness to the system (Baudrillard 1993a: 39). Yet, it is also at the symbolic or general economic level that the system’s fundamental weakness is located. Any effective counter-strategy must challenge the system at the symbolic level: the level of the giving and receiving of life and death. The giving of life and the denial of death, for Baudrillard, makes the re-introduction of violent, sacrificial death the only fundamental challenge to the system. Death is the one aspect of modern rationality that cannot be ascribed a positive value. Death retains a powerful symbolic charge; it declares a failure or breach in the system of the rational management of life. Though death in the symbolic or dual sense is denied and deferred, it haunts the system such that sacrificial or symbolic death (as with Bataille, not ‘real’ or biological death) is the ultimate weapon against the system. As the system is founded on the seizing of control over death, wresting death from systemic control reverses the system’s own apparatus against it: against the ‘gift’ of life, the counter-gift of death. Further, the system’s monopoly of violence is challenged by re-opening the symbolic dimension through violent counter-exchanges (contre-don), hurling back the ‘life’ given, structured and confined by the system. The system is humiliated, on the symbolic plane, by the rejection of the ‘life’ it administers, and symbolically humiliated, the system is symbolically obligated to make a response. It may respond by increasing levels of control, but this in turn generates new spaces for defiance and reversal. Or, it may respond, Baudrillard suggests, by toppling or crumbling – like the twin towers on 9/11, that is it may respond to the challenge of death by dying (Baudrillard 2003: 17&57). This death is a symbolic not a ‘real’ one, it may consist, for example in the abandonment of a policy or strategy, a humiliating climb-down or u-turn.
Baudrillard’s position on extreme or “eruptive” violence remained consistent throughout his career. The Consumer Society (orig. 1970) theorises such violence as “secreted by plenty and security once a certain threshold has been reached … objectless and aimless … this violence must cause us to reassess all our thinking on affluence” (Baudrillard 1998: 174-5). “Over-developed” consumer capitalist societies exert powerful moral, psychological and symbolic constraints, not merely economic ones, and eruptive violence is a form of the contestation or defiance of these constraints. Such violence may be “objectless” because the constraints being attacked are less and less coherent ideologies or social institutions but “illegible” or “unconscious” forms of symbolic humiliation and forced integration (Baudrillard 1998: 176). These are cultural conditions for the flourishing of intra-genic violence, violence which does not counter the system’s ideology or values but that emerges from within the system’s limitless over-function.
For Baudrillard, the affluence, liberation and enjoyment offered by consumer society are simulatory, consisting in a super-abundance of abstract commodity signs – advertising is the obvious example – which fails to correspond to lived experience. Secondly, the sheer excessiveness of the simulatory ‘gifts’ of consumerist lifestyle hurled into the path of the consumer, obligates and humbles. The fundamental symbolic violence of consumer capitalism is to confer a moral, psychological and economic structure of simulatory gifts that can only be accepted or declined as commodities, never definitively rejected, never countered, never defied in a challenge hurled back at the giver – except through suicidal or sacrificial death. Consumers are indebted structurally and symbolically, but can respond only individually and commercially. This radically asymmetric relation is the fundamental source of the system’s power, for Baudrillard, and generates in consumers a “gigantic fund of anxiety”, a deep but often illegible rejection of the consumer system that can erupt into violence at any time, requiring only “the slightest spark” (Baudrillard 2010: 103-107; 2003: 14).
Writing about two events: a violent hostage-taking at a primary school in Neuilly in 1995 and a “murderous spree” across Paris, Baudrillard suggests:
“…that violence…is no longer a political violence with a determinate objective. It’s a violence cut off from its object and turned back against that object – against the political and social. It’s no longer anarchistic or revolutionary, it’s worse, because its objective is no longer to set the system at rights” (Baudrillard 1998b: 66).
Such violence is “worse” than other forms in the sense that it has no objective other than the “destabilisation” of society through a moment of defiance. It is “worse” in the sense that it is intra-genic: it is of the system as well as against the system. Like the system it combats, intra-genic violence cannot imagine transcendence, it can lead to nothing beyond itself.
To summarise, capitalist society is a systemic violence; it exercises symbolic violence and controls through absorption, solicitation and (simulated) security. From the perspective of general economy, society requires and is dependent upon violence. Ultimately there can be no social equilibrium, or successful adaptation to social conditions. Without the specific, localised violence of the sacred or symbolic order, society itself depletes, or, for Baudrillard, expands exponentially until it reaches the point of “implosion”, which is one, but only one of his multiple hypotheses of the present (Baudrillard 1983: 65-86; 2005b).
On April 20th 1999 two male high school students: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, aged 17 and 18, attacked their school with semi-automatic pistols, sawn-off shotguns and approximately 60 home-made bombs. They murdered 12 fellow students, one teacher and then killed themselves (The Times, London, April 22nd 1999). Both were from economically comfortable backgrounds though apparently felt excluded and unpopular and were bullied at school (Ames 2007).
Many ‘contextual’ explanations for the actions of Klebold and Harris have been offered: bullying; low self-esteem; parents not paying them sufficient attention; the seeking of media exposure and ‘fame’ etc. Sections of the American media claimed Klebold and Harris were motivated by racial hatred and had singled out black students for execution. Further, two of the victims, it is rumoured, were asked by the ‘shooters’, at gunpoint, if they believed in God. Both replied ‘Yes’ and as a result were executed (Gibbs 1999). However, eyewitness testimony failed to confirm either racist or ‘satanic’ motives (Ames 2007). By portraying Klebold and Harris as both racist and satanic the popular media ensured their demonization amongst both liberals and the Christian right. These readymade or simulatory demonizations of Klebold and Harris serve to contain the event within individual monstrosity.3 Governments and media struggle to contain horror by any semblance of explanation no matter how strained or tenuous; however, nothing less than the functioning of rationality and morality in consumer societies is put at stake in these events.
Wernick (1999) approaches ‘Columbine’ through a reading of Bataille and argues, persuasively, that the assault cannot be explained as a revenge attack by victims against their classroom tormentors. Klebold and Harris did not target specific groups but seemed to fire at whomever they encountered. Nor is their attack explained by reference to supposed masculine rage; as Wernick puts it this was “equal opportunity hatred’: they seemed to hate everyone and everything, including themselves, and they destroyed everyone and everything they could, including themselves. [Yet Klebold and Harris, like Derrick Bird, apparently ‘spared’ certain potential victims. Harris, for example, seems to have spared Brooks Brown, a former friend, who strayed into their line of fire in the early moments of the attack (Ames 2007)]. For Wernick, Marxist analysis is unable to understand the acts or agency of Klebold and Harris because they were not challenging the institutional or cultural oppression of youth; on the contrary, they sought the annihilation of fellow students. Understanding the event as a distinctively contemporary form of nihilism with Klebold and Harris having no alternative set of values to affirm, no positive programme, Wernick argues: “the lack of anything to affirm is rendered positive only by becoming an active will to annihilate” (Wernick 1999: 7). There are additional features of the work of Bataille and of Baudrillard that could be applied to this case, notably Bataille’s notion of sovereignty, and Wernick’s emphasis on the ‘random’ or ‘equal opportunity’ aspects of the shootings on its own is unsatisfactory. These themes are discussed below in relation to the Whitehaven shootings.
Ames’s (2007) study of spree or “rage” killing, and critical reading of ‘Columbine’, is also valuable. A particular strength of his study is the focus on the widespread but mostly unreported feelings of empathy for ‘spree killers’ amongst their former colleagues. Ames cites examples where co-workers have expressed empathy and even admiration for colleagues who have “gone postal”, with comments such as “they just shot the wrong people”, meaning that they should have targeted their CEOs and managers responsible for lay-offs and other workplace tyrannies (Ames 2007: 1-25). However, the undoubted stresses, humiliations and brutality of corporate work regimes under neo-liberalism are too readily asserted by Ames as the cause of ‘spree killing’. The nexus of forces which provoke such rage are surely deeper and are not confined to the relatively recent arrival on the scene of human misery that is neo-liberalism. Indeed, a significant problem appears in Ames’s analysis, one which re-appears in discussions of the case of Derrick Bird: if stress, bullying and wide-ranging personal grievances are presented as the causal explanations of spree killers’ acts, then these attacks become so over-determined and over-predicted that the distinctiveness and singularity of each event is buried. [This difficulty tends to be reproduced, rather than challenged, in cultural and critical criminology and despite Jock Young’s assertions, at present cultural criminology has yet to “capture the phenomenology of crime” (Young in Ferrell et al 2004: 13)].
“He’s always been a good neighbour and a nice man as long as I have known him” (James Campbell, neighbour of Derrick Bird, in Leigh 2010: 10). Bird first murdered his twin brother, some days after a row about money. He then began a murderous assault during which he murdered four people known to him and seven strangers. Most victims, including the strangers, were shot in the face. The evening before the attack Bird was apparently behaving normally, relaxing in a local pub, yet he had also spoken ominously of an impending storm of violence. Bird’s grievances with people he was eventually to murder stretched back over a decade. He murdered a former work colleague and his wife, and a fellow taxi driver whom he felt had stolen fares from him on a number of occasions (Leigh 2010; The Independent, 4/6/10: pp. 1-9).
The British media quickly buried any sense of the horror of the deaths by launching saturation coverage and turning, predictably, to a questioning of the details of police and ambulance response times and, for a few hours, the minutiae of UK gun law. Constantly repeated images of quiet country lanes punctuated by mug shots of Bird could not fail to reduce the horror of multiple deaths to just another media event – this week’s outrage. By rehearsing, in a pointlessly precise and excitable manner, the details of the size, composition, equipment status and response times of Cumbria police and medical services the news media sustained the fantasy that more efficient services might somehow have prevented Bird’s attack.
The myth at work throughout the media’s coverage – the many faux ‘re-constructions’ of Bird’s ‘last journey’, the rash of speculative and irrelevant detail in the absence of facts – was that instrumental rationality was still in control, still secure. Instrumental rationality depends, as Bataille argued, upon pervasive somnambulism, not on genuine shared values, a slumber that is shattered by the horror of extreme violence and death. Here we observe the panicked implementation of simulation models or highly restricted economies, used to protect bureaucratic and technological rationalities from ruin and to deflect questioning of a general economic nature – how are violence, death, horror, and sacrifice connected to moral and social order? It is worth noting that Bird did what many of us feel like doing, or even say that we would like to do: kill people who anger or snub us. Yet this fundamental sense is stripped away by the application of simulation models: be they causal explanations, attempts at criminal profiling, contextual understandings or simply entertainment packages.
One of the great difficulties in understanding the Whitehaven attack is that some of Derrick Bird’s victims seemed to be murdered in acts of vengeance for relatively minor snubs and insults, while others seemed to be murdered at ‘random’. It was therefore extremely difficult for the media and authorities to rationalise this event through an explanatory context. The mainstream media sought to account for this attack through metaphors – ‘being pushed over the edge’ – by the stresses and strains of everyday life, such as debt. British prime minister David Cameron commented that ‘a switch had flicked on’ in Bird’s brain (quoted in The Times, 4/6/10 p. 3), a variant of the ‘random’ attack account which enables a further distancing from any social factors by suggesting the attack was initiated by a ‘random’ psychological event in Bird’s head. While Cameron’s revealing comment deftly, but unsurprisingly, deflects critical attention from the social and economic contexts of the crime, it also presents a truly terrifying image of sudden, incomprehensible psychological determination which society is completely powerless to effect. Such a nihilistic vision – itself more terrifying than anything envisioned by Bataille – is one of the costs of maintaining an individualist account of all social transgressions.
There are two additional features of this case I wish to emphasise. First, several members of the local ‘community’ (as the media insist upon calling the assortment of casual acquaintances and strangers who simply live or work fairly close to the killer) refused to condemn Bird, even when invited to do so by journalists. Nan Wilson, aged 75 and Bird’s former teacher, remarked “I cannot say anything against the Bird family, not about Derrick and not about David: he was one of us” (quoted in The Independent, 4/6/2010, p.8; see also Leigh 2010: 84-5, 95). Bird was not celebrated by a large online ‘community’, as Raoul Moat was, but nor was he rejected or disowned, after the attack, by those who knew him. [11,000 people ‘mourned’ the victims of Derrick Bird through Facebook. This website also generated 2,000 ‘fans’ of Raoul Moat, who murdered a ‘love rival’ and serious injured his ex-girlfriend and a police officer before taking his own life after a stand-off with armed police, in July 2010.] Indeed some members of the ‘community’ seemed to accept what Bird had done far more readily than they accepted the intrusion of global media agencies, as many pinned notices on their doors that read No Journos or No Press. This response echoes that of the ‘communities’ of Dunblane and Columbine who seem to resent the news media’s marketing of their town as a site of horror as much as the actual shootings. The vacuous nature of contemporary evocations of the notion of ‘community’ was very pronounced in this case, with London-based journalists seeking to explain the attack with arguments that ‘community’ is too strong in the countryside, that everyone knows each other and so the pressures of life can accumulate unbearably (see Terence Blacker in The Independent 4/6/10 Viewspaper, p.4). Yet ‘community’ in this vague, feel-good sense is as meaningless in rural areas as it is in urban ones. ‘Community’ as simulatory construct, as media-sponsored condescension and flattery is capable neither of explaining such attacks nor of enabling the ‘community’ to mourn or re-build itself after the attack. It is more likely, indeed, that the Whitehaven ‘community’ became “strong” and “resilient” only after Bird’s attack; that Bird’s attack generated the “strong” community that did not exist before it and could dissolve again shortly after it. Bird then could be considered sacred in Bataille’s specific sense: becoming a “foreign body” a heterogeneous or transgressive force that ripped through the homogeneous (or simulatory) structure of community and generated, for a moment, a “strong” community in and through sacrificial death. [Bataille’s work has generated a small literature on community and communication as sacrificial. See Bataille’s text Inner Experience (1988b, orig 1954), Albany, State university of New York, and also Maurice Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community, Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Inoperative Community and Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community].
The issue of Bird’s ‘victim selection’ is especially problematic. The ‘second phase’ of his attack was widely declared ‘random’ in that he shot at strangers, but the random attack argument is not convincing. Bird also ‘spared’ certain potential victims and selected others by hailing them over to his car, under the pretext of wanting to ask for directions. Why did Bird fire his shotgun at a teenage girl and shortly afterwards ‘spare’ a young couple hitch-hiking? This action seems to refute the “forward panic” and de-sensitization to murder arguments proposed by Collins (2008) – Bird ‘spared’ the hitchhikers at the very culmination of his attack. [Though Collins seems to be specifically concerned with the behaviour of soldiers and their experiences of “forward panic”, he makes the claim that forward panic also characterises events such as the Columbine shootings (Collins 2008: 92-3)]. It can never be known why Bird chose particular victims, it is doubtful that he knew this himself, but this wasn’t an out-of-control ‘killing spree’. Bird transgressed dramatically and spectacularly, committing acts he knew to be morally wrong, without ceasing to find them morally wrong. Setting out on a course of pure loss, for Bird there could be no turning back, no redemption and this marks his attack as sacrificial, as general economic. The act can then be seen as an impossible or failed communication with a community that came to life momentarily through this act of communication.
V. Anders Breivik
In marked contrast to Bird, the actions of Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in July 2011, might be interpreted as ideological and psychologically structured in Bataille’s sense. Breivik, like Ted Kaczinski the Unabomer, produced a vast, rambling manifesto which did, in his own deluded terms, seek to “set the system at rights”. [Breivik’s manifesto ‘2083: A Declaration of European Independence’ was published on the Web under the pseudonym Andrew Berwick shortly before he carried out his attacks on Utoya Island and Oslo, Norway killing 77 people]. From Breivik’s manifesto, it seems he believed that the system was retrievable, it could be ‘cured’, and he sought a specific if deluded goal: “to prevent the annihilation of our identities, our cultures and our nation states” (Berwick 2011: 6). His was a totalitarian or fascist vision of a future reality: a Muslim-free Europe, to be imposed by extreme violence. Fascist ideology, Bataille argues, depends upon the generation of a distinct “psychological structure’ within a rigid system of hierarchy, purification and control so that the “subversive” energies of the sacred which unbind structures and might transform hierarchical society are neutralised (Bataille 1985: 137-160). While many people were sacrificed in Breivik’s pursuit of his cause he would not sacrifice himself or place his own death as a stake, wishing to pursue a “propaganda phase” during his trial.
Breivik’s relationship to ideologies and ideas is a very curious one. His manifesto devotes many pages to explaining what he calls ‘cultural Marxism’ and the threat it supposedly represents to Norwegian national identity as Breivik understands it. Breivik styled himself a ‘Marxist hunter’ and though his exposition on Marxism is superficial there is something very meticulous about its construction – it reads like a mediocre undergraduate dissertation. Breivik clearly felt the need to justify his hatred for the Norwegian socialist youth movement (The Workers’ Youth League or AUF) which he attacked so ruthlessly, though it is doubtful that any of his victims espoused the Marxism that Breivik sought to vilify. So what precisely was Breivik’s object of hatred? His manifesto also provides a potted history of Islam, which, though the underlying tone is one of hostility, contains little of the vitriol we might expect. At times Breivik appears to admire Islam, so long as it remains outside of European boundaries. Breivik desired a neat, binary separation of Christian Europeans and Muslim Asians. Yet, Breivik was not a Christian fundamentalist, he defined himself as a “cultural Christian” with “no relationship to God”. Christianity, for Breivik, was important only as a cultural value, as a sign of European identity, hence his endorsement of the odd formula “Atheist-Christian”. Breivik sought to affirm boundaries or limits that do not exist, and that have never existed, and limits that should never be crossed or reversed. He yearned for a purity of the signs of ‘culture’; the dynamism and volatile of the sacred, in Bataille’s sense, formed no part of his thinking. Christianity and Islam, for Breivik, were already purely semiotic, already museumified simulations.
It seems that Breivik did not hate otherness, he hated the similar yet marginally different: he hated white, middle-class Norwegian youth who, he assumed, supported a left-liberal version of multiculturalism. As Zizek notes, “he [Breivik] did not attack foreigners themselves, but those within his own community who were overtly tolerant towards them” (Zizek 2012: 37). However, Baudrillard’s analysis of difference, indifference and hatred, discussed in detail in chapter five, seems to take us further than Zizek’s analysis. Breivik feared and loathed the notion of a tolerant indifference to the other; he hated what Baudrillard terms “the dangerously similar”. He attacked those who were dangerously similar with the declared aim of preventing Muslim immigrants from joined the ranks of the dangerously similar.
However, could Breivik, even at his most deluded, ever really have thought he could prevent Muslim immigration into Europe? If not, we are left with his murderous desire to murder his fellow Norwegians, to eliminate ‘the same’. He massacred young people enjoying themselves camping; this was a lethal case of ‘the hate’ as Baudrillard terms it. In chapter five I draw out some similarities between fascism and “the hate” by locating both as forms of intra-genic violence.
For Bird, in contrast to Breivik, ‘reality’ was entirely irretrievable, there was no way forward and no way back, no discourse or ideology could provide any leverage or justification. It is then possible to draw out a heuristic distinction, latent in the work of both Bataille and Baudrillard, between ideologically-driven attacks which tend not to be suicidal, and suicidal-sacrificial attacks which demonstrate no recognisable ideological rationale. However, these are neither oppositions nor continua, the theories of Bataille and Baudrillard are not, fundamentally, descriptions of a reality but challenges to the way ‘reality’, in this case the ‘reality’ of ‘spree killing’, is presently constituted.
Baudrillard modifies Bataille’s notion of the accursed share arguing that, in Bataille, it remains too rooted in claims about nature and about human subjectivity (Baudrillard 1991; 1993b: 106-110). Instead, Baudrillard emphasises the social and formal dynamics of giving, receiving and exchanging; these are not properties of subjects, agents or selves but take place in the spaces between people, in the circuits which bind or repel them. Further, the processes of representation, mediation and simulation themselves generate “accursed” excesses such as media and information saturation which provoke irresolvable uncertainty and farce, quickly burying the singularity or “force” of events (Baudrillard 2007). As transgression has lost much of its social and symbolic resonance, for Baudrillard, he addresses the idea of impossible or failed symbolic communication by adapting the Freudian term ‘acting out’.4 In acting out the humiliated subject unconsciously or unwittingly expresses a message to society: you will listen, you will take notice. However neither the ‘agent’ of this acting out, nor society at large, comprehends this act of communication. Acting out may well be incomprehensible to the people involved and to society’s official discourses, but it is far from meaningless.
Baudrillard clarifies the notion of acting out, relating it to his thinking on violence and on “double lives”, through a brief discussion of the case of Jean Claude Romand (erroneously referred to as ‘Romans’ in Impossible Exchange 2001: 67-72, see also 2005a: 60-2). Romand was a promising medical student, but failed his first year exams. Instead of retaking them, the rational option, he hid his initial failure by setting up what Baudrillard calls “a complete parallel life” (2001: 67). Romand presented himself as a successful doctor and medical researcher to friends and family, despite not being qualified and holding no medical post. He married, had children and maintained the pretence throughout, funding their lifestyles through property dealing. Romand became “a veritable simulation machine” (ibid.). Then, nearly twenty years after the original deception, and fearing exposure, Romand murdered his parents, wife and children in a fateful “shoot-out with reality” (2001: 69). The case was declared inexplicable by the media, yet according to Baudrillard the events can be understood in terms of the spiralling of symbolic and simulatory relations. Romand “could not stand the idea of those who believed in him ceasing to do so” (2001: 67). Killing them was a logical solution: committing suicide – the apparently honourable way out – would not have “spared them the shame of knowing” (ibid.). Romand was “jealous” of the image others had of him; to be unmasked would be an unbearable symbolic humiliation. According to Baudrillard, the case became so notorious not because of Romand’s violence, but because of “the fantastic suspicion he cast on personal identity, and hence on the whole of the social order. For this he clearly deserves to be locked away indefinitely” (2001: 69). More specifically, for Baudrillard, the simulatory double life was not an effect ‘caused’ by the failure of the exam. There were many opportunities for resits, as Carrère’s eloquent account describes (Carrère 2001: 68-82). Romand’s double life had “no initial motive; its motive force arises out of the process itself” (2001: 70). As in ritual and ceremonial exchange the meaning is generated from within, through the throwing off of identity and “fail-safe rationality” (1981: 204). Rather than maximizing his own life as an operational performance, Romand invented a second life for this. Romand gained distance from his official, designated life by treating it “as though it were another’s” (2001: 70). His violent acting out protected his double life, not the ‘truth’ of his identity, it protected his from symbolic humiliation.
For Baudrillard acting out can be considered as failed communication or as happening where communication is impossible. It is not fundamentally a cry of the dispossessed or impoverished, people who are often too crushed to respond, it is rather a response of the relatively affluent, of those on broadly the ‘right’ side of the global divide, but who, like Bird and Romand, still find themselves suffering from the pain and humiliation inflicted by ‘reality’. Harris and Klebold sought to destroy both their school and their fellow pupils; Bird sought to de-face, to take revenge by blasting those who had slighted him in the face: he had lost face so now they would too. This defacing suggests, in Baudrillard’s terms, a “deadly literalisation of metaphor” that is characteristic of acting out and of symbolic exchanges that are hurled against power (Baudrillard 1990: 119-21). Indeed, Bird’s attack can be seen as a tumultuous ‘potlatch’, as counter-violence or ‘counter-giving’ of such force that it could never be paid back or redeemed. Society had no means of avenging itself, it was wounded without possibility of recompense as Bird could not be punished precisely because of his suicide:
“[T]hrough suicide, the individual tries and condemns society in accordance with its own norms … for death is perhaps the only thing that has no use-value, which can never be referred back to need, and so can unquestionably be turned into a weapon.[ …]. The worst repression … consists in dispossessing you of your own death, it is necessary to rob everyone of the last possibility of giving themselves their own death as the last ‘great escape’ from a life laid down by the system” (Baudrillard 1993a: 175&177).
Bird was seizing back, for an impossible moment, control of his death by ‘giving’ himself his own death: unadministered, uncontrollable and catastrophic. [I am not reading Bird’s acts as heroic, or as morally or politically justifiable. Nor is the case that Bird exemplifies Baudrillard’s notion of defiance: the killing or annulment of the self may challenge the system; the killing of others challenges nothing]. This death generated the community it would speak to, opening an impossible channel of communication, a channel almost immediately closed by the official media protecting the system from having to make a symbolic response. Breivik, by contrast, sought to stage-manage his communication to society, wanting to be understood and acknowledged.
But this is not an ‘explanation’ of Bird’s or Breivik’s behaviour; it cannot tell us why them rather than anyone else. Causal or predictive explanation is a fantasy of restricted economy, of media-friendly simulation models. If the methodology of objective explanation is impossible, what of subjective understanding? Baudrillard (1983; 2005b) argues that social theory cannot claim to grasp ‘rationally’ excessive violence even through the notions of subjectivity as damaged, deficient or alienated. In other words, Klebold and Harris’s and Bird’s background and experience did not ‘lead to’ this act as causal motivational or contextual principles. If the paradigm of explanation (Erklären) is suspended by excess, so too is the paradigm of understanding (Verstehen). Klebold and Harris, and Bird, it seems, did not act in order to ‘maintain’ a pre-existing ‘image’ or identity, of toughness or deviance for example. Rather subjectivity, as tenuous social construction, was diverted, voided or erased in and through the singularity of the act itself. That is, the act of rejection and defiance is its own meaning; it seeks no justification beyond itself. In Baudrillard’s terms these are “fatal” events, enmeshed in the logic of the (capitalist) system but not emanating from a recognisable context or set of causes (Baudrillard 1990). Not exactly the “autotelic” (end-in-itself) violence that Schinkel (2004), in an important paper, suggests but rather heterotelic violence, violence against both the self, the other and society. These attacks dramatise the absence of meaningful political alternatives in an age of hegemonic capitalism, where the only ‘alternative’ beyond the reach of neutralisation or cultural assimilation through commodification, can seem to be one of total destruction and self-annihilation.
VI. Concluding remarks
General economy and symbolic exchange are not tools which explain ‘spree killing’; they are ideas that challenge accepted thinking on the relationship between society and violence. Further, they attempt to name an experience where defiance and impossible communication are valued above the ‘life’ given by the social system.
General economic or “radical thought” (Baudrillard 1996: 94-105) must risk the stability, closure and even ‘decency’ of restricted economies by pushing further than instrumental rationality and conventional morality allow. What is needed is not the asserting of a definitive ‘knowledge’ of violence, but an affirmation of horror and ambivalence as inevitable features of any social system. The question is whether current forms of social organisation are so unjust, and so insidious in their controls, that violent rejections of the system are becoming increasingly likely. Of course events such as those of Columbine and Whitehaven remain intensely problematic for any way of thinking, including Bataille’s and Baudrillard’s, and we must be wary of producing an additional structural context for these attacks. Yet these catastrophically violent excesses beyond the grasp of instrumental rationality can be seen as highly meaningful.
In marked contrast, the labelling and promotion of these attacks as random and ‘inexplicable’ drains them of symbolic meaning, they are not allowed to be the singular, tragic events of ordinary people in extra-ordinary circumstances but are produced as instances of the category ‘spree killing’. These attacks can be seen as acts of defiance, public displays or symbolic (ex)communications directed at ‘society’; poisonous ‘gifts’ directed along the media arteries of the system. However, ‘society’ and ‘communication’ in these senses exceed the well-worn definitions ascribed them in academic sociology, criminology and cultural studies. If we are able to conceive ‘social’ and ‘communication’ in the general economic sense then the acts of ‘spree killers’ neither remain inexplicable, nor over-determined by psychological or economic context: this otherwise perplexing, though also comforting, explanatory opposition is broken.
Horror and death suspend the routines of everyday life; suspend ‘reality’ – but only for a moment. Events that might provoke re-evaluations of the nature of society and community are buried, quickly, by the twittering banalities of consumer-driven culture where everything becomes entertainment, then disappears. We might respond to the suspension of reason in death and horror in more profound ways, resisting the re-production of consumer capitalism, pushing against the system, seeking new social and collective forms. Indeed the work of Bataille and Baudrillard can even encourage us to conceive new forms of relation, exchange or intimacy that might make the occurrence of such spectacular violence less likely.
About the Author
Dr. William Pawlett is from the department of Sociology and Media Studies, Wolverhampton University, UK.
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1 -I do not claim that Bataille’s general economy and Baudrillard’s symbolic exchange are co-terminous (though Baudrillard occasionally treats them in this way, see 1993b: 179) but they are closely related. This chapter is not concerned with “symbolic violence” in the sense of the violence of exclusion perpetuated by educational and linguistic structures, as developed in Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology.
2 -Following Nietzsche, and Durkheim, Bataille and Baudrillard I understand the ‘psychological’ realm as a derivative, as superficial product of modernity’s technologies of social control. In this view affects, emotions or passions do not cohere within a ‘psyche’ but cut across, exceed or suspend the ‘psychological structure’.
3 -A 12-page article in Time magazine failed even to refer to the context of American gun culture (a subject explored in Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling For Columbine 2002, Momentum Pictures), preferring to dwell on the individuals’ “pathological obsessions” with Adolf Hitler and the ‘satanic’ rock singer Marilyn Manson (see Gibbs 1999). Such responses obscure the guilt and responsibility of those who committed these crimes – they were not performed by hyperreal monsters but by people like you and I, and this is one of the most threatening dimensions of these events.
4 -For Freud “acting-out” (Agieren) concerns repressed memories of past events which return by expressing themselves in actions that the actor ‘responsible’ cannot understand and which appear irrational or ‘out of character’ (Freud 1991, Vol. 9: 371-400). Baudrillard’s position is related, though in developing the notion of the symbolic exchange he had attempted a definitive break with both Freud and Lacan (Baudrillard 1993a: 133-140). However, this makes the re-appearance of the notion of acting-out in Baudrillard’s later work rather problematic, not least because the earlier emphasis on collective relations tends to be submerged and is replaced by poles of communication such as self and other, or self and society at large. The final chapter explores this issue in detail.