Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Guns and Butter: Oedipus at Sandy Hook

James Livingston has written a perceptive commentary on the Newtown tragedy, "Guns and the Pain Economy" in which he asks,
"why do these young white male people whom we routinely characterize as crazy—as exceptions to the rules of civilized comportment and moral choice—always rehearse and recite the same script? If each killer is so deviant, so inexplicable, so exceptional, why does the apocalyptic ending never vary?"
The equally obvious answer, Livingston concludes, is because "American culture makes this script." 

Livingston then goes on to point out that William James foresaw this cultural condition in 1910 and quotes liberally from James's essay, "The Moral Equivalent of War." So far so good. James made some trenchant observations about what he termed "the fear of emancipation from the fear regime." Erich Fromm made eerily similar arguments in his 1941 book, Escape from Freedom, in which he examined the psycho-social underpinnings of the rise of fascism.

Both Fromm and James falter, however, when they move from diagnosis to prescription. Very briefly, both propose to dispense with war (or in Fromm's case, authoritarianism, destructiveness and conformity) by somehow repurposing the state – James through conscription for peacetime service; Fromm through planned economy. James's prescription may be viewed as a concession to what is conceived as an intrinsic human nature; Fromm's as a path to a fundamental transformation of an historical culture.

Randolph Bourne's 1918 essay, "War is the Health of the State," offers a clue as to where Fromm and James go wrong. For Bourne, the state is an historical symbol – distinct from nation, government or country – and bound up emotionally with "trappings… of military origin":
Wartime brings the ideal of the State out into very clear relief, and reveals attitudes and tendencies that were hidden. In times of peace the sense of the State flags in a republic that is not militarized. For war is essentially the health of the State.
Although Bourne omitted direct citation, the last sentence – which contains the title of his essay – alludes either to James or James's own source, Homer Lea:
War is, in short, a permanent human obligation. General Homer Lea, in his recent book The Valor of Ignorance, plants himself squarely on this ground. Readiness for war is for him the essence of nationality, and ability in it the supreme measure of the health of nations.
To put Bourne's allusion and James's citation into context, it is instructive to examine the stark social Darwinist mythology at the core of Homer Lea's thesis that "military vigor constitutes the strength of nations":
The beginnings of political life are not hidden absolutely from us, and though there is no exactitude in our knowledge, we are nevertheless cognizant of the fact that at one time, when primitive man lived in continuous, individual strife, there occurred, somewhere in the sombre solitudes of a preglacial forest, what has proven to be to mankind a momentous combat. It was when the brawniest paleolithic man had killed or subdued all those who fought and roamed in his immediate thickets that he established the beginning of man's domination over man, and with it the beginnings of social order and its intervals of peace. When the last blow of his crude axe had fallen and he saw about him the dead and submissive, he beheld the first nation; in himself the first monarch; in his stone axe the first law, and by means of it the primitive process by which, through all succeeding ages, nations were to be created or destroyed.
One must distinguish here between Lea's crude, unscientific anthropology and his ideologically-faithful representation of the generative myth of the state – its "specimen story," to use Shoshana Felman's term. With regard to specimen stories, Felman cautions, "In practice, there is no such thing as a specimen story. The very notion of a specimen story as applied to the reading or interpretation of another story is thus always a misreading, a mistake." This is not to say that such mistakes are useless or futile. On the contrary, they offer the possibility to "go beyond the myth." "Science," Felman asserts, "is the drive to go beyond."

Felman was discussing the role of the Oedipus myth in Freud's theory, in "orthodox" psychoanalysis and in Jacques Lacan's critique of that orthodoxy. "Freud's reference to the Oedipus as a key-narrative – the specimen story of psychoanalysis – is structured by three questions," Felman writes. Those questions were: "Why is the story so compelling?" "What is it that the story is compelling us to recognize [in ourselves]?" and finally, the question of the validity of the theory. In other words, we are moved by the story; we identify with it in some profound way and these effects on us seem to validate the story's existential truth (regardless of its empirical truth or falsehood).

Returning finally to Lea's primal war myth and James's "moral equivalent," it is all too easy to see the unpersuasive banality of James's "dishwashing, clothes-washing and window washing" conscript as surrogate for Lea's stone-axe wielding paleolithic "monarch." Setting aside the bland digression of James's "moral equivalent" returns us to the compelling question of "the fear of emancipation from the fear regime." Is there no hope or possibility of emancipation, either from the fear regime proper or from the reflexive fear of emancipation? Will "gun control" emancipate us from the fear regime and its sequel? Must we succumb to the primal war myth even though we know it is a myth simply because an alternative is, literally, unimaginable?


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