Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Further commentary on: The Face of Seung Hui Cho

There didn't seem to be much to say about the Virginia Tech shootings. A mentally ill person went on a rampage, as mentally ill people will sometimes do. The independent variable was that he had such ready access to guns. You could talk about gun control, violence in popular culture, or the ways we have failed to provide for the care of the mentally ill. There was something to each of these points, but they all had a rehearsed, formulaic quality when you read about them. Any effort to yoke this thing to some larger agenda felt forced. There was, for instance, an extremely lame attempt by right wing bloggers to link "Ismail Ax" (a cryptic term that Cho had written) to Islamic terrorism. The temptation was to conclude that this was an essentially meaningless event, without any larger significance beyond itself.

It was my feeling that the event actually enacted something about the structure of American society -- something so apparent that no one could see it. Not something that could be read in terms of reform, or of moral outrage, but about the way it felt to confront a society of open opportunity, where your own actions determined your fate, and your own actions could make you, if you were an elegant, smiling, self-possessed, brilliant, handsome, but then also unthreatening, person with a preternaturally cool demeanor and a heart full of idealism tempered by wisdom and pragmatism, into the President of the United States, even if you had come from nowhere and had started as nobody; and it could also lead you, if you were a weak, wounded, stunted, sickly soul, into a position of total and unmitigated isolation, even though there were people whose job it was to care about you and care for you.

We celebrate winners, but a society conceived in these terms is premised on the existence of losers; people who try to make it but can't, people who don't have what it takes to earn a place for themselves; people who have earned their total exclusion from life as surely as others have earned their place at the center of it. Let us call them the untalented tenth. And since we aren't comfortable with this fact, we don't want to look at the losers, even if we know something about what those people felt and knew; especially because we do. To evoke some of this feeling, I found it necessary to go beyond the usual commentary and try to involve the reader in some of the internal turmoil of youth, particularly male youth, and to remind everyone of the aspects of Cho's predicament that are expressed all around us, every day of our lives. Cho wanted, above all, to be looked at and regarded as the things he was not: strong, manly, and capable; and he fantasized into existence a shadow life, fashioned out of the detritus of American popular culture, in which the same fantasies of the besieged self rising up to smite down a sea of enemies are in constant circulation. What desire is gratified by these images? And don't they arise from out of the matrix of our everyday lives? The experiment I attempted in this piece -- and its success or failure is for others to judge -- was to see if I could make that connection.

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